Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2016 Issue

The Pirie Sale at Sotheby's Garners Almost $15 Million in Sales

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Interior of Robert Pirie's New York home (courtesy of Sotheby's).

One of the most important book auctions of 2015 took place at Sotheby's in New York in the final month of the year. As can happen when the very best of collections are offered for sale, the figures flew past the estimates of approximately $8-$12 million on the lots that sold, settling at a total of just a hair under $15 million. The sales rate was also unusually high at 85%. Spectacular collections earn spectacular results. The collector of this single-owner sale, who died earlier in the year, was Robert S. Pirie of New York.

 

Robert S. Pirie made his fortune as a corporate lawyer and investment banker. Born in 1934 in Chicago and educated at Harvard, Mr. Pirie became a force in law, then banking, beginning in the 1970's. Despite his rise into high finance, he was a man of progressive political views, not surprising as he was a nephew of 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. It earned him a place on President Richard Nixon's enemies list, which he considered an honor.

 

Long before his foray into the world of high finance, Mr. Pirie developed a love for books. While serving in the Army in Germany in the 1950's, he found an old book by John Donne. It was the start of a collection of thousands of books, specializing in 16th and 17th century English literature. It included some of the greatest examples in the field. It was book collecting he loved perhaps more than any of his other successful ventures. According to the New York Times, he once said he never intended to be a lawyer. "I wanted to become the rare book curator at Harvard."

 

The top price at the Pirie sale went to a special copy of Isaac Newton's seminal work on light, Opticks: or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. This was a presentation copy of the first edition, first issue of 1704, given to his colleague and supporter astronomer Edmund Halley, forever known for the comet named for him. Halley has marked this copy with the Latin "luceo," which means "I shine," or "I dawn, become light." Sotheby's noted that the significance of this is uncertain, but that Halley also made the same annotation in his copy of Newton's Principia. Newton had actually begun writing the book in the 1670's, but because of differences with Robert Hooke, waited until after his death in 1703 to publish his findings. In this book, Newton announced his discovery that white light is actually composed of all of the colors of the rainbow, expounding on the refraction and combination of light. He also writes about the telescope and his theory of how light travels. Finally, the book concludes with two mathematical papers, designed to show Newton's priority over Leibniz in the discovery of calculus. Of great importance is Newton's enunciation of his use of the scientific method – observation rather than just reasoning – in reaching his conclusions. Newton explains, "My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments." Against an estimate of $400,000-$600,000, this copy sold for $1,330,000.

 

The next two highest priced items fittingly came from the greatest name in all of English literature – William Shakespeare. One was the 1619 Pavier-Jaggard second edition of the Merchant of Venice, one of only 26 copies known to survive. This edition is notable as it, along with eight other Shakespearean plays, was meant to be combined in a collected issue, just two years after Shakespeare died and four years before the publishing of the First Folio. However, they ended up being sold separately, or perhaps with the expectation purchasers would bind them together. This rare edition sold for $550,000 against an estimate of $250,000-$350,000.

 

The second Shakespearean item was a copy of the Second Folio. It followed the first by nine years, essentially a reprint of the first. It would be 30 years before another edition was published. The Second Folio includes a poem by John Milton, and as such, it marked the first appearance of Milton in print. It sold for $430,000.

 

Among other items sold was perhaps the most important of sporting books ever, Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler. It took in $206,250, two to three times the estimates. A magnificent letter from the man who started Pirie's collection, John Donne, to Lady Kingsmill was sold for $150,000. In it, Donne comforts his old friend who just lost her husband. He assures her that God reunites such partners in time in accordance with His plan.

 

In all, 1,081 lots were offered over three days at Sotheby's rooms in New York. Total proceeds of the sale were $14,908,379.

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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