Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2013 Issue

Is the Field Museum Considering a $50 Million Book Sale?

Fieldmuse

The Field Museum.

In an article published last month, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Field Museum was considering selling some of its artifacts. Specifically considered was the museum's rare book collection. The Tribune reported that a committee evaluating its financial situation determined that the collection could bring up to $50 million. Within a day, the local NBC affiliate reported that spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea had stated there are “no plans at this time to sell any more collections.” That is not exactly a “Shermanesque” statement, but serves as a placeholder for now until some more definitive conclusion is reached.

The Field is not going out of business. It is one of the nation's foremost natural and human history museums. Nonetheless, it faces financial challenges. In 2004, the museum decided to sell off most of its collection of Catlin paintings. George Catlin was an artist from the first half of the 19th century who went west to paint Indians in their still mostly unspoiled habitat. They had owned the paintings almost since the museum opened in 1893. At the time of the sale, the museum said that they did not fit in with their mission and funds could best be used for other collections. However, while it may have sounded at the time that the funds would be used exclusively to purchase other artifacts more suitable to their mission, at least some of the proceeds went towards salaries.

In late 2010, according to the Tribune, a consulting firm recommended a thorough evaluation of the museum's assets, and it was from this that an estimate of $30-$50 million for the rare books was determined. Meanwhile, in December 2012, the museum announced that it would try to cut costs by $5 million annually, and raise its endowment by $100 million. Later, an early retirement offer was made to a substantial number of its curators. Considering its financial goals, one can easily see that much progress could be made towards achieving them if the museum determines that its rare books, like the Catlins before, are no longer critical to its mission.

The Field possesses one spectacular book in particular that might well bring the highest price ever paid at auction for a printed book. That record is held by John James Audubon's Birds of America, the double elephant folio first edition. A copy of that item sold for approximately $11.5 million in 2010. The Field Museum holds a copy of that same book, and it is almost certainly more valuable than the 2010 auction copy. It is one of but two or three copies produced containing the 13 extra “composite” plates that Audubon ordered up. These are prints that were created by combining images from two different plates on the same page. Six of each image were made, but only three were meant to be bound into copies of Birds of America – Audubon's personal copy, plus those he gave to friends Benjamin Phillips and Edward Harris. Harris' copy, however, was unlikely ever bound, leaving just two. The Field has the Phillips' copy.

This is not so much a story about the Field Museum as an issue of our times, one that may be faced more in the years ahead as curators deal with issues of shrinking budgets and widening collections. Ultimately, the Field will do just fine. Smaller institutional collectors may not do so well. This is an issue of which both dealers and collectors of books need to be aware. It can affect the market.

If the Field Museum feels compelled to at least think of selling its books, what about smaller institutions, with tighter budgets and less access to major resources? Museums, libraries, rare book rooms, both private and university related, are all under pressure. While most collectors simply put their books on a shelf, maintenance, climate control, supervision, security are all costs associated with institutional collections. It's not like once they buy or are given a book, the costs go away. They go on forever, even if many of those books are rarely if ever accessed.

With the advent of digital copies, institutions who collected rare books primarily for research may feel there is no longer a compelling reason to maintain these collections. For others, the existence of electronic copies may provide an excuse for disposing of their copies. Collecting habits are changing, and while the market at the top appears strong, mid-priced material often struggles. The quantity of books offered at auction the past two years has been increasing, and an unexpected additional supply can have an impact. Pricing is, after all, a matter of supply and demand. For those who buy and sell books, it is wise to always keep a hand on the pulse of the market.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Published Half Plate Ambrotype of a North Carolina Confederate Officer. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two 19th Century Books Pertaining to Canada's Red River Settlement. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two Books With Fore-Edge Paintings of British Architectual Landmarks. $400 to $600
    <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), "Torte a la Dobosch" from <i>Wild Raspberries</i>. $1,000 to $3,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), <i>Pop Shop II,</i> One Plate screenprint in colors, on wove paper, 1998. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756-1827), Twenty-Two Prints from the <i>Tours of Dr. Syntax</i>. $500 to $1,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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