Published: May 23, 2023
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Freeman’s
PHILADELPHIA — Freeman’s May 3 books and manuscripts auction was marked by fierce bidding competition over presidential material and significant Americana, resulting in the remarkable $441,000 sale of a volume from the personal library of George Washington.
“The market for presidential books, documents and autographs is quite strong, and this exceptional result really drives that home,” said Darren Winston, head of Freeman’s books and manuscripts department. “As rare as material like this is, it’s still Freeman’s bread and butter, right in our wheelhouse, and we’re thrilled with the result — as is the consignor.”
The first edition of The Transactions of the Royal Humane Society was a gift to Washington during his second presidential term by physician Dr John Coakley Lettsom and features Washington’s bold signature at the top of the half-title page.
As books from Washington’s library seldom come to auction, this volume represented a very rare market appearance, with corresponding results: the title exceeded its high estimate of $18,000 by more than 24 times following a spirited bidding war.
The sale totaled $1,033,893, selling through 91 percent with 206 registered bidders.
Several other lots outperformed their estimates in the auction. A 1611 first edition of the King James Bible was bid to $88,200. The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall Tongues…by His Maiesties speciall Comandement is commonly known as the “Authorized Version.” Published in London by Robert Barker, this rare and almost-complete first edition of the King James Bible was royally commissioned in the hopes of settling conflicts within the Church of England, between Puritans and Anglicans, as well as in the division between bibles used by the clergy — the Bishop’s Bible — and those used by laymen — the more compact and easier to read Geneva Bible. Like Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, this version of the King James Bible was extremely influential on the English language and helped shape literary language for generations to come.
Fetching $32,760 against an estimate of $3/5,000 was a receipt for the delivery of John Dunlap’s printing of the Declaration of Independence, signed by Owen Biddle. Dated July 10, 1776, the single oblong sheet, 5-1/8 by 8¼ inches, in a secretarial hand, was inscribed and signed by Biddle as a member of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, ordering John Nixon of the Committee of Accounts to pay Michael Kuhn “£11..12..6” for his delivery of copies of John Dunlap’s printing of the Declaration of Independence to Chester County, Lancaster County, Bucks County and Potts Grove, Penn.
The same amount was achieved by an illuminated Fifteenth Century Latin psalter. In Latin, the volume documents, in the same space, both the afterlife of a medieval manuscript and the survival of pro-Catholic, anti-Protestant sentiment in late Seventeenth Century England, as well as bearing witness to a long succession of women ownership. It was elegantly produced with wide margins on fine parchment.
Historical documents by Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin found favor, with an autographed letter signed by Jefferson going out at $27,720 and a land grant signed by Franklin taking $17,640. Jefferson’s letter praises Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours as one of “The Ablest Men in France.” The one-page autograph letter, signed by Jefferson as president of the United States, to General John Armstrong Jr, the newly appointed US Minister to France, directs him to forward an enclosed letter (not included) for the United States’ commercial agent at Marseille, Stephen Cathalan Jr, and recommending that Armstrong acquaint himself with French-American economist and businessman Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemour.
The Franklin document was dated Philadelphia, August 29, 1787, and consisted of one oblong sheet, 11¾ by 14½ inches, partially printed on vellum, signed by Franklin as president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, granting George Tudor, “Administrator of the Goods and Chattels Rights and Credits” of the late Captain James Wilson Esquire, 500 acres of land in Westmoreland County.
Rounding out the sale’s top lots were a 1593 first edition of George Giffard’s A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes, which earned $17,640, and an autograph album of the 30th United States Congress with Five United States Presidents, which left the gallery at $13,860.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.freemansauction.com or 215-563-9275.
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