Published: June 19, 2018
HAVRE DE GRACE, MD. – William Sherman Reese, a leading dealer in historical American books, maps and documents, died early in the morning of June 4 at his family’s farm, Seven Springs Farm, in Havre de Grace after a long illness.
The antiquarian, who sold by appointment from premises on Temple Street in New Haven, Conn., was born in Havre de Grace on July 29, 1955, to William B. and Katherine J. Reese. He attended Gilman School in Baltimore and graduated from Yale College, summa cum laude, in 1977. He began trading while still an undergraduate. According to The New York Times, Reese made his first major sale in 1974 when he sold a circa 1565 map of Mexico City to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for about $18,000. Reese, who reportedly acquired the relic at auction for $800, founded his eponymous company in 1979. His high profile and deep expertise made him a favorite source of journalists. In one particularly memorable instance, William Finnegan interviewed Reese about stolen maps for “A Theft in the Library,” published in The New Yorker magazine on October 17, 2005.
“He was universally acknowledged to be the greatest American antiquarian bookseller of his generation, known for his expertise in Americana, color-plate books, natural history, exploration, literature and the history of the book, and also widely celebrated as a man of uncommon graciousness, generosity, humor and decency,” the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) said in a statement posted to its website.
Writing in The New York Times on June 15, Andy Newman observed that Reese’s “encyclopedic knowledge of historic American books and manuscripts made him a towering figure among rare-book sellers.” The dealer, Newman noted, “shaped tastes, cultivated collectors, advised museums and libraries and made and moved markets. Many of the nation’s leading collections of Americana bear his stamp.”
Beginning in 1975, Reese published more than 350 catalogs on Americana, travels and voyages, natural history and American and English literature, with forays into photography, painting and the graphic arts. His recent titles include The Struggle for North America (2018), with Terence S. Osborn; Collectors, Booksellers and Libraries: Essays on Americanists and the Rare Book Market (2018); and The Best of the West: 250 Classic Works of Western Americana (2017).
Reese was a member of the Century Association, the Grolier Club, the Club of Odd Volumes, the Old Book Table, the Yale Club, the Walpole Society and the American Antiquarian Booksellers Association. He was on the boards or councils of the Friends of American Arts at Yale, the Yale Library Associates, the Yale Library Development Council, the American Antiquarian Society and the Library of America, and was a Fellow of Silliman College. In addition, he was an active supporter of several community organizations, including Common Ground, New Haven Reads and the Community Soup Kitchen.
Reese is survived by his wife, Dorothy Hurt; his sister, Barbara Reese; his nieces, Sarah Dyer and Tessa Currie; and his nephew, Andrew Currie. William Reese Company continues under Hurt’s ownership and management.
Donations may be made in Reese’s memory to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.
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