Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

Freeman's Begins Third Century with Celebration

Famf

A firm as old as the history they sell.


By Bruce McKinney

The Samuel T. Freeman Company of Philadelphia celebrates its two hundredth anniversary this month with four days of important sales. It is the first American auction house to reach this milestone and this sale promises to be a remarkable event. The firm arrives at this juncture sporting the scars and experience to prove it has both made the journey and will continue to be a player in the unsettled and unsettling auction world that is unfolding in the 21st century. For auction houses generally this means continuing rebirth to be relevant. For Freeman's, a canny player in the auction game, they play it as opportunity and daily work to make it one. Their history says they have the skills and ambition to prosper in a world where the high wire is ever higher and safety net long gone. They begin their third century with firm determination to carry their endeavor into the fourth.

In conjunction with this anniversary they are releasing a history of the firm: Vendue Masters: Tales from within the walls of America's Oldest Auction House. It is a collaboration of two writers: Roland Arkell & Catherine Saunders-Watson and a book that "auction-o-philes" will want to give themselves this holiday season. It is one of the better ones and is to be released in conjunction with the four day 200th anniversary sales to be held November 19th through the 22nd. In some sense this celebration was 73,000 days in the making so four days to celebrate seems about right. The firm is also issuing two auction catalogues: A Bicentennial Pennsylvania Sale [11/19-20] and the Esther Ludwig Collection: A Celebration of Pennsylvania [11/21-22]. Important books and manuscripts will be sold during the first two days.

Two intertwined threads connect the firm's first day in 1805 to the 200th anniversary this month: the continuing participation of the Freeman family and the sale of material at auction. Every other aspect of the story flickers and darts, appearing, disappearing and reappearing as circumstances dictate and personalities permit. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us that two hundred year old businesses are rare for a reason: it is almost impossible to survive that long. To do so as a family business is as likely as winning the lottery, only harder. It suggests a rare combination of grit, determination and luck.

To those who know the firm as specialists in fine antiques, exceptional books and manuscripts this is the Freeman Auction Company of today but not the firm that carried the torch down through the first ten decades. At heart the firm was from the beginning simply a seller of what was to be sold. Auctions were first "cried" next to a banner displayed to signal dispersal. Such sales were often the final stage of business dreams gone to Potter's Field. "They say auction is the second oldest profession" and in the nineteenth century it was associated with shame and failure, no doubt a tough business.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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