The paper is thin and the color of pale tea, a few lines denoting where it has been folded, perhaps many times, over the past 250 years. The type, unevenly printed, is smudged in places, but the words that changed the course of history are clear and still have the power to evoke strong emotion. One of only six recorded copies of an early broadside edition of the United States Declaration of Independence, and with an estimated value of $1 million–$1.5 million, the document is the highlight of the collection of rare books and manuscripts owned by the late William S. Reese.
For many years, the contents of the renowned dealer-scholar’s private library were the subject of great speculation. Now, however, the full extent has been revealed, with Christie’s handling the sale in May of this year.
The 700-lot collection of Americana included printed works, historic prints, fine art, and color-plate books. Among the notable pieces was a 1624 first edition of explorer John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles—its portrait frontispiece unusually printed on silk—and a special first-edition copy of Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition, the definitive account of the most important exploration of the North American continent.
Christina Geiger, who is Head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s, New York, first set eyes on the collection at Reese’s Connecticut home. “Seeing his private library for the first time was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life,” she says. “It was like walking into Aladdin’s Cave or El Dorado. I had heard so many rumors about it for 10 years; to see it was incredible. The books and artwork so clearly embody Bill’s passion for history, evidenced in both written and visual culture.”
Sold in two lots, together the collection reached $16,000,000 reflecting its importance as well as the desire to experience the joy of owning a rare book or manuscript. “They function as time capsules as they immediately take you to the time and place in which they were produced,” says Geiger, who described herself as “profoundly honored” to be have been involved in the sale.
“Yes, the Declaration of Independence is rare and it’s an important text, but what makes people want to own it, and what drives the price, is that when you see it you can feel immediately what it would have been like to be a Massachusetts resident in July 1776 reading the words for the first time. It is such an intimate connection to history,” she says.
What you lose by buying online is the serendipity of collecting, finding what you didn’t know you wanted—Ken Gloss
Today’s rare book sellers deal in luxury goods, and their stores reflect this. The fusty, Dickensian image found in popular culture is misplaced. Today, stores are brightly lit with custom-made bookshelves and plush rugs. Now called “rare” or “collectible” rather than “antiquarian,” the materials sold include paintings, autographs, and a variety of memorabilia. During the pandemic, dealers pivoted to sell online, too, with virtual auctions and sophisticated electronic catalogs growing an already strong market.
“People were at home a lot more, had the time to start following more auctions and add to their collections,” says Ken Gloss, the owner of Brattle Book Shop in Boston, Massachusetts. Established in 1825, it is one of the oldest bookstores in the United States, and its third floor contains 25,000 rare books. “With FaceTime you can see the items and objects, and shipping has become quick, too.”
However, for Gloss, who took over the business his father bought more than 70 years ago, the greatest pleasure comes from being able to touch a book or manuscript and imagine its story, as well as the joy of discovering an interesting item. “Online is a useful tool, but what you lose by only buying online is the serendipity of collecting—going in looking for one book, but discovering that the one next to it is more interesting; finding what you didn’t know you wanted.”
Gloss’s offerings span a range of subject matter from history, literature, and science to sport and food. The books are sourced from fairs but also estate sales and appraisals. “We go out every single day—one day we might go to a house and they have a collection of picture books, another day it will be 15,000 art books, or maths and science books owned by a professor of physics, or rare first editions of 19th-century authors,” he says. “One of the best things we ever had was a series of 700 photographs of Native Americans by Edward Curtis, which sold for more than $1 million.”
The Joy of Discovery
What makes a book valuable is a confluence of factors. Rarity is one. In 2020, Christie’s set a record for the most expensive work of literature with a 1623 copy of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (often referred to as the First Folio), the book selling for almost $10 million. Originally published just seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it was the first copy to come on the market for a generation.
It was very old, but age is not always a defining factor. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling recently sold for $471,000. It was only published in 1997, but it transformed the entire book market. “The publisher didn’t expect it to sell particularly well, so the first edition was a small print run and, as most went into libraries and were read to pieces, there are very few first editions in good condition,” says Gloss.
Peter “Pom” Harrington owns the eponymous bookstores in London’s Mayfair and Chelsea. He suggests desirability as a gauge of value. “For example, there were around 1,250 first-edition copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species printed, so it is not unique in that sense, but it challenged established thought and widely entrenched religious views on the creation of the natural world and revolutionized thinking on the natural sciences. As a seminal text it is still highly desirable and therefore very valuable.”
Harrington, too, took over the business from his father, which began as a stall at Chelsea Antiques Market 50 years ago. The first shop opened in 1997 and he now heads a team of specialists who advise private and institutional collectors.
“Individual copies of the same title can command very different values,” he continues. “Their condition, presence of original boards, bindings, and dust jackets, provenance and ownership history, interesting associations, or inscriptions all factor into determining value,” Harrington says. One of his most memorable sales is of a set of books on the American Revolution from the library of the first U.S. president, George Washington, signed by Washington himself. It sold for several million to a collector.
In the case of a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sold by Brattle Book Shop, an inscription made up for the condition of the book. “It didn’t have a dust jacket and was quite worn, but it was inscribed: ‘To the greatest living poet T.S. Eliot, sincerely Scott Fitzgerald.’ And T.S. Eliot annotated the whole book,” says Gloss. It was valued at $300,000 and would be a considerable asset to any collection.
The New Asset Classes
While an autographed copy helps value a book, leading dealers have to develop a depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects to understand the worth of a collectible that comes their way.
“There is a lot more research and scholarship involved these days as we all tend to go more deeply into why any one book or manuscript is important or significant,” says Derek McDonnell, founding director of Hordern House in Sydney, Australia, which specializes in the subject of voyages and exploration, especially the Pacific.
McDonnell began his career in England, at Blackwell’s bookshop, before joining Bernard Quaritch, one of the oldest rare bookshops in the world, where he became a director. Having visited Australia professionally, he decided to move there, and in 1985 he and his partner Anne McCormick (pictured below) combined their existing rare book businesses to form Hordern House. Today they work out of a converted warehouse in Sydney’s Surry Hills district.
“The history of colonial Australia is a short one, but the history of the European exploration of the Pacific is much longer, dating from classical theoretical ideas about there being a southern continent,” McDonnell says. “This means that even the earliest printed books—those of the 15th century known as ‘incunables’—include works that speculate about what there might be in the bottom half of the globe. And the works that describe the actual voyages from [Spanish explorer] Balboa in 1513, and others in the decades and centuries that followed, are fascinating. They come in all languages and from all periods from the beginning of printing.”
For McDonnell, particularly compelling are the voyages of Captain Cook, and a 1786 copy of David Samwell’s A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook is a favorite. “It’s one of the most difficult of all Cook-related pieces to acquire, and among the rarest and most significant 18th-century publications,” says McDonnell. “The first copy to turn up in my time sold in London in around 1980 for £14,000 ($18,295); I’ve sold three copies and the last one, sold five years ago, was priced at £165,000 ($215,624).”
An even longer history is that of China, and Harrington is seeing a growing interest in the country. “China’s rising prominence on the global stage has translated into a heightened interest in works on paper that shed light on its complex history and culture,” he notes. “There is more demand for Mao memorabilia and interest in early Chinese translations of Western classics and cornerstone titles such as Aesop’s Fables.”
Science is popular, too, and Gloss points to collectibles about space travel and computer science as another growing market. “There are people in the tech field who have a lot of money and will spend it on collecting the history of their industry,” he says. “These include manuals and sales brochures about early computers that now sell for tens of thousands of dollars. It’s a similar story with space—the demand for early books on rocketry that go back to the World War II period, even NASA promotional materials, has increased tremendously over the past 20 years.”
But McDonnell believes “it will be the classical collecting fields that will last: literature, science, philosophy and economics, art, travel, voyages, and monuments of history.”
The collection belonging to William S. Reese contains an unrivaled range of rare pieces that tell of America’s history, making it one of the most valuable book auctions ever held. In being sold, however, the carefully curated collection has been broken up. “But this is what Bill would have wanted,” says Geiger. “The books gave him great pleasure and he wanted to inspire others. The best way to do that is to give people a chance to acquire them for themselves.”
Banner image: Hordern House in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Alicia Taylor