Booksellers’ Best

A selection of noteworthy books, manuscripts, and ephemera sold in the past year, submitted by antiquarian & rare book dealers
Courtesy of Hordern House.

Australia’s First Book

It was the Sydney-based rare book dealer Hordern House that sold this rarity to a private collector: Francois Pelsaert’s Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van’t Schip Batavia… (1647), showing the first views of Australia in the first Australian book. Pelsaert’s account of the “unlucky voyage” and wreck of the Batavia off the western Australian coastline in 1629 and its gruesome aftermath is the first published account of any voyage of Australian discovery. A small quarto, the book contains six full-page plates comprising fifteen separately engraved images. According to the bookseller, this is one of only two copies of the first edition known to be held outside institutions. The price was $485,000 (AUD), or about $358,000 (US).

Book image Courtesy of Ken Sanders Rare Books / Charles Darwing Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection… (London: John Murray, 1859) is a high spot for many collectors and can be found at auction with regularity, but this copy is something special: inscribed by Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, with related material bound in at the end, including a two-page letter signed by Darwin, and an unrecorded offprint of a paper on Darwin’s work. A private American collector purchased it for $120,000 from Salt Lake City’s Ken Sanders Rare Books. Bonus points for the slip bound in at the end by Sir Charles Langham, 13th Baronet of Tempo Manor, noting that Leonard Darwin had signed the book while visiting him, and that in 1946, the book was appraised at £20.

Courtesy of Blackwell’s

From Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford, England, comes this 547-year-old book, printed in Venice by the famous French printer and type designer Nicolas Jenson, no less. Additionally, this third edition of Quintilian’s Quintilianum eloquentiae fontem has, according to the bookseller, “an almost unbroken, and somewhat distinguished, provenance since publication, all English, including an archbishop of Canterbury and two Wardens of All Souls.” Sold at £50,000 ($65,600), it now resides in a UK library.

Courtesy of Zinos Books

If size mattered, the submission sent by Zinos Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, would top this booksellers’ best-of list. The three-volume elephant folio set of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, printed in Milan between 1931-1941, that they sold late last year weighed about 250 pounds! Commissioned in commemoration of the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death, this monumental edition is illustrated by one hundred sublime colored lithographs based on Italian artist Amos Nattini’s original watercolor paintings. Bound in full calf, the set is “rarely found on the market,” said the bookseller Nicholas P. Zinos, thus the $12,500 price tag.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Co.

A letterpress facsimile of the Psalms from the British Museum’s Codex Alexandrinus—and one of only seventeen copies on vellum—was the “hands down” favorite sent in by Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Co. It was printed in 1812 and bound in full English crushed dark blue morocco over heavy pasteboards, “almost certainly” by prominent English bookbinder Charles Lewis said the booksellers at PRB&M, who sold it to Princeton University earlier this year. The Greek type used was originally cut, in imitation of the Alexandrine uncials, by Joseph Jackson, a former apprentice of Caslon’s, for Dr. Woide’s 1786 edition of the Greek New Testament.

Courtesy of Bay Leaf Books

This visually striking collection of sample books and printing plates for J. R. Weldin & Co. Printers and Stationers, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest businesses, was recently sold for $3,500 by Michigan’s Bay Leaf Books. The two albums are positively packed with about three thousand printing examples, including late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century menus, calling cards, letterhead, bookplates, and the like, while two jeweler’s trays contain more than one hundred metal printing plates depicting logos and other decorative elements. One hopes the buyer, a Midwestern university library’s special collections, sees the archive’s potential both for research, as well as for print crafts.

Courtesy of Nudelman Rare Books.

The sumptuous red morocco binding pictured here (and recently sold for $12,500) was designed and executed by Helen Schofield of the Guild of Women Binders. The book is a first edition of More English Fairy Tales (London: J. D. Batten, 1894), which she choose to depict with a stylized butterfly motif, both in 198 inlays and in full gilt-tooled doublures. The binding was pictured in G. Eliot Anstruther’s The Bindings of To-morrow (1902), thus dating it early in the pantheon of Guild production. The seller, Seattle’s Nudelman Rare Books, noted its “forward-thinking design, blended with technical expertise,” adding, “The importance of this stellar Guild binding cannot be minimized.” A private collector in the UK is the proud new owner.

Courtesy of Jeff Weber Rare Books

Here we have the ten-volume “Manuscript Edition” of the Writings of John Muir in its most deluxe, made-to-order form, containing ten (fragmented) manuscripts in Muir’s hand and bound in full crushed green morocco with gilt tooling. Surprisingly, it is also extra-illustrated with more than 260 added plates, mostly photographic, by Muir’s photographer, Herbert W. Gleason, some reproducing Muir’s drawings—and that’s on top of the original 114 photogravure plates made for the regular edition. Jeff Weber Rare Books in California sold the set to the Huntington Library, together with The Life and Letters of John Muir by William Frederic Badè (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1916-1924), for $45,000.

Courtesy of Sokol Books

Any time a bibliophile has the chance to see Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum, printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger in 1493, he or she is certain to be delighted as it is “one of the greatest and grandest of incunabula.” In this case, perhaps the more so, considering the beautiful contemporary coloring (and annotations) applied to this large folio first edition by Johann Kruyshaer of Lippstadt (1484-1555), a.k.a. Joannes Cincinnius, a Westphalian humanist scholar with a flair for color. The “Constancia” woodcut, for example, shows different shades of blue and green. Elsewhere, the catalogue copy notes, “Very nasty looking spiders added to portraits of heretics and other grave malefactors.” Sokol Books in London sold it to a library for the equivalent of $300,000.

The Mysterious Bookshop

What makes this 1950 first edition in dust jacket of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train particularly interesting is that she inscribed it to Otto Penzler, her editor and publisher for six years. Penzler, the proprietor of New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop, said, “My favorite part is that she misspelled my name!” Indeed, Highsmith inscribed it as follows: “For Otto Pentzler [sic] I am surprised!!! to see this collector’s item—on 22 Oct. 1984. Pat Highsmith.” A fellow bookseller nabbed it for $9,500.

Courtesy of Priscilla Juvelis

One of only ten copies of The Book of Candles (2006), a limited edition manuscript of poetry by National Book Award winner (and onetime Unabomber suspect) William T. Vollmann, was sold by Maine’s Priscilla Juvelis earlier this year to a private collector for $30,000. The 75-page text is a suite of eight religious and blasphemous love poems to prostitutes and was composed in the Philippines in 1995 and relief-printed on Rives de Lin paper by the author over a period of years. According to Juvelis, “The text is Vollmann’s only book of poetry and he has no plans to have it published in any other format.” It is also unlikely, she said, that any of the other nine will enter the market, as most are in institutions, and this one will eventually go to the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.

Courtesy of Booklyn

Booklyn, the Brooklyn non-profit that promotes artists’ books, sold artist Brian D. Tripp’s hand-painted book, Round & Round (2018), to the Newberry Library in Chicago for $2,600 this past April. According to Booklyn, Round and Round is “an important example of contemporary Native American (Karuk Nation) artists' book making. And it's the first unique handmade artists' book made by a contemporary Native American acquired for the Newberry's acclaimed collection of Native American material.” Tripp is a member of the Northern California Karuk Tribal community, and he made this book partly as an homage to the Water Protectors at the Standing Rock encampment, where he spent time in 2017.