John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller has issued Catalogue 60: Books from a San Francisco Private Library. This catalogue is subtitled Part I, Fine Books and Illuminated Manuscripts. In other words, there will be more selections from this library in the months ahead. While the collector is not named, it is clear he or she collected at the highest level. Some of these books are at the top of the most important titles ever written. Nothing here is ordinary.
We will look at a few of the items, but first, a word about the illuminated manuscripts. Most of these are individual leaves, and their origin very long ago. Some are contemporary with the first century of printing, but others long precede Mr. Gutenberg and his invention. We find some as early as the beginning of the 13th century.
If you are looking for a bible that will take you as close as you can to the original source, this is likely the best you can do. Item 44 is a manuscript bible on vellum from northern France which dates back to around 1250-1275. It contains 543 leaves, plus 13 later ones, dating from the 15th century. The writing is in dark brown ink, in what Windle describes as “a handsome small gothic hand.” Some headings are in red, chapter numbers in alternating red and blue, while certain large capitals are touched in red. It is bound in 16th century German white pigskin. It belonged to a “fr. laure[n]t” in the late 13th century. Among its more “recent” owners is the notable early 19th century French statesman Tallyrand. Priced at $125,000.
Here is a chance to learn the entire history of the world, from Creation through the year 1493. For years after that, you are on your own. Item 21 is Hartmann Schedel's Liber Chronicarum, better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle. Schedel set out to complete the daunting task of recounting everything important since the days of Adam and Eve, making sure that Nuremberg was recognized for its role in world history. The timing is ironic as Schedel published his work just as our understanding of the world was about to make enormous changes. This is a first edition, in Latin, completed on July 12, 1493. Columbus had returned from America only a few months earlier, but Schedel was unaware of his discoveries, or the rapidly expanding world, taking place as he completed his history. This book contains hundreds of woodcuts, including the rare instance of the image of the supposed Pope Joan that has not been defaced. Item 21. $89,500.
Here is something else you can buy for your $89,500. Item 6 is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the 1896 edition published by the Kelmscott Press. This one, too, has a common name – the Kelmscott Chaucer. The Kelmscott Press of William Morris was the leader in the private press movement, still considered the finest of the fine presses. Its Chaucer is considered the greatest work ever produced by this legendary printer. Item 6. $89,500.
Next we have what Windle describes as “the single most important scientific book ever published.” Additionally, it may be the most controversial as well. Item 7 is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin's 1859 pioneering work on evolution. It certainly ran contrary to Schedel's account of early human history. Windle notes that this copy has never been sold at auction or through the trade. $160,000.
Item 28 is a manuscript draft of a letter pertaining to what would have been a hugely fascinating collaboration if only it had come to pass. The polished, urbane composer, Igor Stravinsky, and the much younger, hard-living poet, Dylan Thomas, planned to produce an opera together. Stravinsky was 28 years Thomas' senior, though he still managed to outlive the alcoholic poet by 18 years. Drink can do this to you. This draft was written in Thomas' hand, including corrections and deletions, and is unfinished. Thomas was reluctant to write lyrics for the famed Stravinsky to put to music. He notes, “I have lots of ideas – good, bad, and chaotic.” The draft is dated June 16, 1953. However, plans were apparently made to work on the project, as Stravinsky set aside room in his home for Thomas and on October 25 wired Thomas asking when he expected to arrive. The reply came back in a telegram two weeks later. Thomas had died, the aftermath of heavy drinking even as his health was deteriorating rapidly. $4,750.