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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Armchair Travel

Moby Desk

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, $74,500 at Sotheby’s New York on June 17, and Melville’s travel desk, $34,160 at Bonhams New York on June 22.

Moby-Dick, the American first edition. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

This famous book was first published in London by Richard Bentley, and in October 1851, when Melville signed the contract for the book that was in England called, simply, The Whale, he asked his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, friend and neighbor, John Morewood, to be one of the two witnesses required.

Melville had written a few weeks earlier to Morewood’s wife, Sarah, about his book, half-jokingly warning: “Don’t you buy it, don’t you read it, when it comes out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not of a piece of fine feminine Spitalfield silk—but is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables & hausers. A polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”

Herman Melville’s travel desk. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Whether the Morewoods got to see that English three-decker, I cannot tell, but they certainly owned a copy of the single volume, first US edition that Harpers issued later that same year—a version that did not boast the huge gilt whales that decorated the spines of the English first but did contain thirty-five passages of text and the Epilogue omitted from that Bentley edition.

This was it, a copy in original cloth and showing much less foxing and offsetting internally than is usually found and bearing John Morewood’s ownership inscription on an endpaper.

The price for this association copy matches the previous best seen for a US first, the $74,750 paid for a copy at Swanns of New York in 2006, but one or two copies of the English first have made a little more. In 1990, the copy in the Bradley Martin library, with all three volumes signed by Melville’s brother Alan, reached $99,000 at Sotheby’s New York.

The Victorian brass-mounted, mahogany traveling lap-desk seen here was acquired (in the 1880s?) from his wife’s cousin (and their benefactor), Ellen Gifford. Melville used it until his death in 1891.

Enclosed are a gilt-metal mounted agate snuffbox, two small penknives, one bearing Ellen Gifford’s initials, as does a glass intaglio seal, a moulded glass inkwell, a pair of tweezers, and a gilt-metal and mother-of-pearl pen.

Catch-22—the Shakespearian Connection

Joseph Heller, Catch-22, $10,980 at Bonhams New York on June 22.

A reprint edition of Catch-22, heavily annotated by Joseph Heller. Courtesy of Bonhams.

This was not a first of the book that this year celebrates its fiftieth birthday, just a 1966 Modern Library edition, but it is one in which passages have been extensively underlined or annotated by Heller, seemingly for use in a lecture or seminar on his book.

Much of this annotation relates to identifying the Shakespearean inspirations for his characters: Clevinger as Hamlet, Major Major compared to Falstaff, and “a touch of the Merchant of Venice in this description of the one true outcast in the book … the Chaplain.”

One of the more famous scenes, the climactic and revelationary death of Snowden, is extensively revised as if to dramatize it for a reading, and Heller notes in the margins that he was indebted to a favorite scene—on the heath—in his favorite play, King Lear.

As the saleroom noted, manuscript material by Heller is scarce on the market, his papers having mostly gone to Brandeis University and to the University of South Carolina, so one wonders why this lot carried an estimate of just $600-800.

In 2002, at Christie’s New York, a densely annotated copy of the 1961 first edition, inscribed “used by me in organizing thoughts and material for the stage dramatization,” was sold at $105,160 as part of the Roger Rechler library of Masterpieces of Modern Literature.

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Derek HayesIan McKay’s weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than 30 years.