Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy Christie’s
NEW YORK CITY – On May 25 and 26, Christie’s sold the private collection of William Reese, who died in 2018, for more than $16.6 million (an online sale that closed on June 2 earned an additional $496,188; see sidebar). Reese was unquestionably one of the leading antiquarian book dealers of his time. His involvement with the world of rare books began while an undergraduate at Yale. His obituary in the New York Times relates that his first purchase, while in his sophomore year, was a map for which he paid $800 at a furniture auction, thinking it was Native American. When Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library asked him how much he wanted for the map, he computed the cost of his remaining tuition at Yale and said $18,000, which was agreed to. The Times continued, “He got his first lesson that he had underpriced something, which didn’t happen in later years.” After graduating from Yale, he worked with other leaders in the field, and established his own business in 1979, in New Haven, Conn. He was well known for the hundreds of scholarly catalogs he published over the years, with detailed descriptions of his offerings. The business continues today in New Haven, with the tradition of publishing fine catalogs also continuing. The company’s inventory today, according to its website, includes 60,000 volumes, still specializing in Americana and world travel.
The scope of Bill Reese’s private collection was, to use an overused word, breathtaking. When looking at a gross sales figure of $16 million, it would be easy to say, “That’s impressive but there were probably one or two things that brought big money.” A better indication of the scope and quality of the collection might be the fact that of 374 items in the sale, 38 items, more than ten percent of the total, sold for more than $100,000 each. Less than a dozen of the 374 lots were passed. It isn’t possible to fully discuss all the rarities this collection offered in this short article.
Reese collected the basic works defining America and the New World – a very early broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, and Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century writings about the New World (six were printed in the Sixteenth Century), association copies of works with previous ownership tracing back to the Founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, early works chronicling the exploration of new lands such as the journeys of Lewis and Clark, books chronicling the explorations of Mexico and South America, books with some of the earliest printed views of places like Niagara Falls and the developing cities of the United States, numerous works on natural history, including several Audubon engravings and works by other early naturalists and botanists, works relating to native Americans including early portraits of prominent Indian chiefs, Shakespeare’s second folio and so much more.
Each object was selected with the eye of a connoisseur who had a broad appreciation of the importance of the works within the field. Condition was of prime importance to the collector, as was proper preservation. Reese shared his knowledge broadly, publishing hundreds of scholarly catalogs and bibliographies, and face to face with numerous collectors and institutions. To say the dispersal of this collection was a major event in the antiquarian book world would also be an understatement. Christie’s presentation showed their understanding and appreciation of the collection. Christina Geiger, head of Christie’s books and manuscripts department, and her staff produced hardcover catalogs with more than 400 pages and hundreds of color photos for Part One and Part Two of the collection. The catalogs include full descriptions with provenance and bibliographic details and place the item in its proper context with informative historical comments. This set of these catalogs, likely to be a standard reference for years to come, would make a wonderful gift for a history buff. (We’re told that very few sets remain available.)
Earning $2.1 million and topping the sale was a rare, contemporary four-column broadside edition of the Declaration of Independence. It is one of only six recorded copies of the first broadside edition of the Declaration printed in Massachusetts. The text appeared, most likely, in the July 16, 1776, issue of the American Gazette printed by John Rogers in Ezekiel Russel’s shop. Variations between the newspaper typesetting and this broadside establish the sequence, with the broadside probably having been printed before the newspaper. Contemporary printings of the Declaration have been the subject of extensive scholarly research for several years and clearly places this broadside in its proper context. The catalog explains that Philadelphia printer John Dunlap, working on the night of July 4, typeset a broadside of the Declaration and beginning over the next two days, John Hancock, president of Congress, dispatched copies to the state assemblies as rapidly as express riders and the post could carry it. The sequence of the quick dissemination of the text of the Declaration is clearly discussed in Christie’s four-page description of the lot.
Selling just a few minutes later, and bringing $504,000, the second highest price of the collection, was John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. It was printed in 1624 and is referred to in Carter and Muir’s Printing and the Mind of Man, as “the foundation of England’s knowledge of America during the early period of colonization.” In it, Smith, in prose typical of the period, describes his eye-witness account of the founding of Jamestown, his capture and rescue through the intercession of Matoaka (also known as Pocahontas), his observations during his time spent in Virginia (1606-1609), and his explorations of the New England coast (1610-1617). Smith used it to create his own story and myth, illustrated with engravings of the period. It also has a four-page description in the catalog.
Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving, “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated In King Street, Boston, On March 5th 1770, By Party Of The 29th Reg. Boston from March 1770,” also known as the “Bloody Massacre,” sold for $352,800. It’s probably one of the best-known images relating to the American Revolution. It’s also one of the most important pro-revolution pieces of propaganda published at the time, as well as perhaps being an early example of plagiarism. Produced just three weeks after the Boston Massacre, it purports to illustrate the deliberate massacre of five colonists by British troops firing at the command of an officer and implies that the British were the aggressor. But that’s not the way it happened. Actually, the colonists had begun the encounter by throwing rocks and snowballs at a single British soldier who called for help and a shot may have been fired. Accounts differ, but most agree that the British troops were not in a line and did not fire on the command of the officer pictured. It was over in seconds with five colonists dead. Revere was a patriot, a member of the Sons of Liberty, participated in the Boston Tea party and produced other negative engravings of the British. He immediately recognized the propaganda value of the incident. Most historians believe that Revere based his engraving on a sketch by artist Henry Pelham, who created the first illustration of the episode – and who was neither paid nor credited for his work.
In addition to some of the earliest books detailing American history, Reese also collected many of the earliest plate books illustrating America’s natural wonders, and books with the earliest published views of America’s cities. One example would be William Wall’s The Hudson River Port Folio, which sold for $201,600. The book, with 20 hand colored aquatint engravings, published between 1821 and 1825, illustrated scenes from the headwaters of the river down to a view taken from Governor’s Island in New York harbor. It has been described as “arguably the most beautiful color-plate book published in the United States in the Nineteenth Century.” Its rarity is indicated by the fact that no copy with the 20 plates has appeared at auction since 1948. William Birch’s The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, North America; as it appeared in 1800 brought $119,700. To quote the catalog, “Each plate is a moment frozen in time, a snapshot that shows the inhabitants strolling, conversing or working in their everyday lives, with different street corners or prominent buildings as their backdrop. The artist succeeded in giving the viewer an intimate sense of the life of the city as well as its chief monuments.” Scenographia Americana, with 28 mezzotint engravings published by Thomas Pownall, et al, in 1768, sold for $100,800. Again, quoting from the catalog: “It’s the first great compilation of views in North America and the Caribbean.” It was conceived by Thomas Pownall, who had spent much time in the American colonies as an administrator and governor. Pownall was also a talented artist, and six of the plates are based upon drawings by him. The list of plate books could go on and on.
Part 2 of the sale included works on natural history and botanical plate books, as well as books and artwork concerning the Western explorations of this country and the Native Americans met by the early explorers. The day started off with works by John James Audubon, and there were more than plates from his Birds of America. Topping the Audubon selection, and bringing $441,000, was a complete edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published between 1845 and 1848. The story of how this set came to be is fascinating and is fully described in Christie’s catalog. The session began with Audubon’s four-page manuscript description for plate two of the Birds, the yellow-billed cuckoo, prefaced by a statement of his philosophy regarding the Birds undertaking. It sold for $40,320. A hand colored double-folio engraving, watermarked 1836, of plate one, the male wild turkey, sold for $56,700. There were a number of other double folio plates and a complete copy of the first octavo edition of the Birds of America sold for $52,920.
The most sought-after of the selection of horticultural works, realizing $478,800, was Grapes and Grape Vines of California by Hannah Millard, published in 1877. It’s not only the first book on California wine grapes but is also the first color-plate book published in California. Travels in the Interior Parts of North America by Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer, published in 1843, earned $201,600. The catalog describes it as the first English edition of the most important illustrated book on the American West and explains why. The set of books has more than 150 color plates, considered the most accurate depictions of Native American and their lifestyle before the age of photography.
This review has only scratched the surface of this remarkable collection. It goes on and on. Owning a set of the catalogs would be the best way to grasp the scope of the collection. Alternatively, Christie’s website has all the information included in its printed catalogs.
Speaking with Geiger the day after the sale, she was asked about which items surprised her. “Obviously the sale, grossing $16 million, and far exceeding the low estimate, was a huge success. There were a few things that surprised me. The Frederick Douglas letter to John Brown, (not pictured here) was one. It had great content and brought $189,000, a world’s record price for a Douglas letter. The Grapes of California, finishing at $478,000 was unexpected as was the strength we saw in the Nineteenth Century color-plate books. The collection had a lot of depth in that area and collectors responded well. A lot of the material was bought by colleagues of Bill Reese, which I think speaks well of the collection. And an interesting aside, lot no. 1, Audubon’s manuscript description of the yellow cuckoo for plate two of his book, sold 45 years to the day that Bill Reese bought it at Christie’s as part of a lot with other manuscript material. That one he kept.”
For information, www.christies.com or 212-636-2667.