Exploring the World and Collecting Books

- by Martin L. Greene, Guest Writer

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Material coming to auction in Christies' sale of The Martin Greene Library

Editor's Note: On December 7, Christie's will host a sale of Russian America & Polar Exploration: Highlights from the Martin Greene Library. The following is an introduction written by the collector, Mr. Greene.

 

Reading, traveling and collecting books – great hobbies that have filled empty hours and enriched my life. What a privilege it was in 1998 to go with legendary book dealer Bill Reese to the Beinecke Library at Yale to collate four copies of the Sarychev 1802 texts and plate books, two belonging to the library and two of ours. I could not understand why The Library of Congress listed 56 plates, which, if true, meant that all the copies we had were defective. This question sent me on trips to the Library of Congress and to many libraries in the USA and Russia to look at 15 other known copies of this rare work. Sure enough, the Library of Congress copy was the “defective” one, with six plates from another book added to the 50 plates from the Sarychev.

 

My parents’ families came to the USA from Russia in the 1890s, settling in Nebraska and Minnesota. By age 16 I had visited all 48 of the United States, later adding Alaska and Hawaii to the list (admitted as states in 1959). After moving to Seattle in 1969, I visited Alaska many times, climbing mountains and collecting more books. Visits to Sitka, former home of the Russian-American Company, to Fairbanks to see the wonderful collections at the University of Alaska Rasmuson Library, and climbing Mount McKinley (Denali) and other mountains were highlights of my life.

 

In London, in June of 1999, I waited in the queue for the opening of the Olympia Book Fair and went immediately to Reg and Philip Remington’s booth. Philip asked if I would be interested in a Kruzenshtern atlas that had come into their shop the day before. The answer, of course, was a very definite “yes,” and I sat down and spent the next two hours with this incredible set. In time, other dealers wandered by, and soon the whole room became a-twitter that there was a Kruzenshtern atlas at the fair. But I did not let it out of my hands until I confirmed with Philip that I would indeed purchase it. What a find! No other copy of this work has been on the market, to my knowledge, since that memorable day.

 

An enjoyable aspect of collecting for me was that I could make my own rules. I decided to collect books on Greenland, but not on Iceland. With our Russian background, and with two children and a granddaughter who spoke Russian to assist me, I set a goal to acquire the 161 titles in Valerian Lada-Mocarski’s Bibliography of Books on Alaska published before 1868 (New Haven and London: 1969).

 

Lada-Mocarski included books which he considered most important in telling the story of the exploration and settlement of Russian-America before the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. His own collection was sold in 1971 by San Francisco book dealer Warren Howell to Elmer Rasmuson of Alaska. I believe the present sale includes the most extensive privately held collection of Lada-Mocarski titles (135 lots representing 98 of the 161 Lada-Mocarski entries) since that author’s own collection was described and sold nearly 50 years ago.

 

The search for these rarities has been exciting, educational, and a lot of fun. I thank my book dealer friends and the sellers at auctions for helping me along this road. The story of the 1844 Sherman edition of Wilkes’s Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 (lot 295) is fascinating. Apparently, a book scout found this set in a pile of books scheduled for deaccession by the State Library of Iowa in Des Moines. He called Greg Gibson in Massachusetts, who then called me. The bindings needed work but apparently the books had never been opened by the good people of Iowa. All the tissue guards were present and the pages had virtually no wear or foxing. Only one other set, the one belonging to Wilkes himself, has ever come on the auction market. The remaining 71 copies (after an early fire destroyed 27 of the original 100 printed) were given to States or foreign governments, and are very difficult for collectors to obtain. I was very lucky indeed.

 

For this auction, we selected titles that I would like to be in the hands of other collectors. They tell the stories of some great explorations – of Alaska, important Pacific Voyages to America, the Northwest and Northeast Passages, the search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition, and of Arctic and Antarctic explorations. I smile when I look at these books, and I will smile when I think of others enjoying them in their collections.

 

Martin L. Greene
Seattle, WA, USA.
December 2017