From eBay to Christies in 81 Days
By Bruce McKinney
UPDATE: December 5, 2008
The book described in this article sold at Christies in New York for $52,500.
Michael Burnley is a Southern California Bookseller with a Beverly Hills business address, a penchant for research and the luck of Bishamon, the Japanese deity of good fortune. A few months back his diligence and luck paid off handsomely as he scanned eBay listings over a Saturday night and came across a rare book that included an even rarer map. This copy of "A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage..." Hartford, 1783, the first American book on Hawaii, is a printing that occasionally comes up. What was different about this copy is that it contained the often absent, preternaturally rare and important map - "Chart fhewing the Tracks of the Ships employed in Cap.t Cook's laft Voyage to the Pacific Ocean in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779". It was offered by eBay seller chocolatepickle37 and was cheap: BP 1,299 or US$2322. Here is the listing as it appeared on eBay in September.
A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage To The Pacific Ocean, and In Quest of A North-West Passage, Between Asia & America; Performed in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778 and 1779. Illustrated with a Chart, shewing the tracts of the ships employed in this expedition. Faithfully narrated from the original MS of Mr John Ledyard. 1st edition, published in Hartford, in 1783.
Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut and attended Dartmouth College in the UK. In 1773 he left the college and decided to travel, so he shipped as a common seaman on a year-long trading voyage to Gibraltar, the Barbary Coast, and the Caribbean. On his next voyage he jumped ship in England, but was eventually impressed and forced to join the British Navy as a Marine. He joined Captain Cook's last voyage, and was onboard ship when Cook met his death on Hawaii. He was also with Cook during the first part of the American Revolution. Assigned to the North American station, he deserted and returned to Hartford, where this account was published in 1783.
The book is bound in contemporary full sheep, spine with 5 raised bands and morocco title lable, ink scribbling on front free endpaper, and ink inscriptions on rear endpaper and rear pastedown. Previous owners inscription and stamp on title page, folding map has several repaired tears and is frayed at the edges, contents grubby and with occasional minor staining, binding with some markings but in solid condition.
The book has been collated and is complete.
Only 2 other copies have been found for sale worldwide, and priced respectively at £8500 ($15000) and £13000 ($25000). Both these copies are lacking the original map which is present in our copy.
One of the rarest of subsidiary accounts of Cook's voyage, and a book of the greatest interest in the history of the Northwest Coast and its exploration.
This is indeed a rare book and the seller knew it as she mentions two copies without the map [there are currently three] on line and acknowledges their much higher prices. She describes the copy as "complete" but it's not. It's missing the 161-162 leaf. Nevertheless she prices her copy as "impaired" compared to the online listings she references. It's all in fact rather confusing.
So why did she price her copy, which contained the rare map, so reasonably? There seem to be two explanations. The first is that, according to Mr. Burnley who asked, she bought her copy for a song at a country auction. The second reason is probably that her copy didn't look very good to her. The English have high standards for condition and this copy can be charitably described as unsophisticated. This is an early American printing however and subject to different interpretation on this side of the pond. The only relevant comparison is to other copies of the same book. The book is, by standard calculation, below par, the map intriguing and probably comparatively exceptional.