The Estate of a Famed NYC ‘Dumpster Diver’ Heads to Auction

Coming to auction next week is a small collection of New York City books, maps, and ephemera that belonged to Dr. Leo Hershkowitz, a professor, urban archaeologist, and inveterate collector. Hershkowitz, who died last year at the age of 92, was well known as an “archival scavenger,” as likely to be found sifting through hampers full of deaccessioned documents or digging up artifacts in construction sites. As the New York Times wrote in his obituary, “From bundles of papers earmarked for disposal by the city comptroller’s office, he saved coroner’s records from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that recorded infanticides, suicides, drownings -- and the killing of Alexander Hamilton by Aaron Burr in a duel across the Hudson in Weehawken, N.J.”

Just over thirty lots from his estate head to auction at Doyle on April 25 -- most of Hershkowitz’s collections were donated to institutions before his death, namely the N-YHS, the American Jewish Archives, and NYU’s Tamiment Library. He also sold material at auction; what is on offer next week is “what remains of a very quality and scholarly New York collection,” said Doyle’s executive director of books, autographs, and photographs, Peter Costanzo. “He would stumble upon something New York and he would buy it.”

Ratzer.jpgThe famous Bernard Ratzer map of New York is one such item, the choicest of the lots. It is the 1776 edition, reissued just as the Revolutionary War was getting underway and maps were in great demand. Today it is seen infrequently at auction, thus the estimate of $80,000-100,000. This was not one of his dumpster finds, Costanzo pointed out. Hershkowitz bought it at auction decades ago and cherished it. “It was just the one thing he wouldn’t part with throughout his life,” he said.

Eddy.jpgAnother favorite is the first edition of Thomas Eddy’s Account of the State Prison, or Penitentiary House, in N.Y. City, 1801, with two folding engraved plates, and two folding letterpress tables. The estimate is $600-900. This book is rare and very desirable to Greenwich Village collectors, said Costanzo. Only one copy can be traced at auction in the last twenty years.

DT.jpgA rare, chronologically complete run of D.T. Valentine’s Manual of the Common Council of New York, 1841-1870 is notable for its “wealth of maps, plates and information about the growing city during the 19th-century.” The estimate is $1,500-2,500.

Picture Book.jpgA first edition of The Picture of New-York; or the Traveller’s Guide through the Commercial Metropolis of the United States, 1807, with a map engraved by Peter Maverick shows contemporary hand-coloring. According to the catalogue, “Mitchill’s Picture of New-York is the first New York City guide book of its kind and was the inspiration for Irving’s Knickerbocker’s A History of New York (1809).” Interestingly, said Costanzo, the map is an update of the 1803 Mangin-Goerck map, and it used “fanciful projection” to show the city not as it actually was, but as it might be one day, perhaps to lure tourists. The estimate is $600-900.

Images courtesy of Doyle NY

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