News | August 18, 2022

Previously Unknown Gold Rush Sketchbook Sells for $24,100

Courtesy of Chiswick Auctions

London — A previously unknown sketchbook of watercolours and pencil drawings relating to the California Gold Rush and the famous Forty Niners has sold at auction on August 4 for £20,000 ($24,100; including buyers premium). The rare 76-page document records the places and characters seen by the amateur artist and adventurer Joseph Goldsborough Bruff (1804-89) as part of an expedition to California from 1849-51. 

Head of rare books and manuscripts at Chiswick Auction, Clive Moss said: “The book was brought to Chiswick Auctions by a private seller in June this year and it was bought by a member of the book trade probably on behalf of an institution although we cannot confirm that.”  

Born in Washington, DC, Joseph Goldsborough Bruff (1804-89) attended West Point from 1820-33 but was forced to resign after engaging in a duel. Instead he worked variously as an itinerant seaman, a draftsman and cartographer and - following the news that gold had been found in the West - the organiser of the Washington City and California Mining Association. His 1849 expedition had followed the Lassen Trail before disbanding. Bruff spent a difficult winter in the Sierra Nevadas before visiting California's gold country, making drawings of geographic landmarks, mining camps, and scenes which piqued his interest.

The many signed and annotated drawings in this 19 x 26cm sketchbook (there are 17 portraits and 9 maritime and coastal scenes) correspond closely with those held by the Huntington Library. The names and places are mentioned throughout Bruff’s journal that was published by the Columbia University Press in 1949.

Some of the costume studies and South American scenes in the book are signed by WH Gatliff – a reference to another competent watercolourist Bruff met while in the West Indies.

In Bruff’s diary entry dated February 13 [1849], Trinidad, he wrote: “Clear and cool. Made the acquaintance of Dr Gatliff, a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, and a talented artist. We walked together and made some sketches."

Collections of Bruff’s work are held by the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, Yale University Library, and the Smithsonian. Although his works do occasionally come up for auction, the auctioneers could find no records for such significant material relating to the Gold Rush.