William Reese Revisits The Streeter Sale
By Michael Stillman
Catalogue number 257 from the William Reese Company is a must for all major collectors of Americana: The Streeter Sale Revisited. Thomas Streeter was likely the most important collector of printed Americana of the 20th century. Streeter was first a lawyer, then very successful businessman and financier. He began seriously collecting books in the 1920s, and evidently this became the love of his life. He retired in 1939, at the age of just 56, to devote the remainder of his life to book collecting. This he did virtually until its end in 1965.
Streeter collected a great deal of early Americana, but had a special interest in Texas. He published a bibliography based on his collection, donated numerous documents to the University of Texas, and sold his Texas collection in its entirety to Yale University. He made numerous donations to other institutions and served on the boards of, or in other capacities with, many libraries and historical organizations. However, he also wanted to make much of what he had gathered available to the next generation of collectors, so he decided to have some 5,000 of his books put up for auction after he died. The result was the Streeter Sale, probably the most important Americana auction of the last century.
The sale was held at Parke-Bernet Galleries, then New York's largest auction house. The sale began in 1966, and did not conclude until 1969, 23 sessions later. A total of 4,421 of his best items were offered at the auctions, bringing in a total of just over $3.1 million, a record for a book auction in the U.S. at the time. A number of factors helped to make the auction so successful, including the great respect Streeter had developed, making his copies very desirable, and the fact that Streeter gave institutions $400,000 to be used exclusively at his auction. Despite the seemingly generous prices often paid at the time, most of the purchases made at his auction have proven to be a bargain, even taking into account inflation since that time. As the rich get richer, the best get better, and Streeter's collection was the best.
William Reese has owned many items that came from Streeter's collection over the years, and has owned even more other copies of books Streeter once possessed. Currently, he is offering 311 items that are the same or similar to items sold at the Streeter sale, including 18 books owned by Streeter himself. In this catalogue, he looks back at Streeter's sale and gives us the prices from that auction, and in most cases is able to tell us to whom the Streeter copy was sold. In some cases, Reese is also able to compare prices with those sold at the auction of Streeter's son, Frank. Frank Streeter died this past year and his collection, while not on a level with that of his father, was nonetheless an important one, and he had many items that once belonged to Thomas. Reese notes that items sold at the son's auction for roughly 26 times the price at his father's, and that prices in this catalogue average around 28 times the prices at the Streeter sale. Some are only a few times as much, though a few are priced well beyond the 28 times average.
We note that our own findings indicate that this is about double the rate of increase as seen for the typical book since the late 1960s. Again, the best material, though seemingly very expensive at the time, usually increases at a more rapid rate than does average material. The Streeter collection confirms this. For comparison, Reese notes the overall inflation rate since that time stands at 6, so books have been a good financial investment, whether typical or superior copies, along with bringing great pleasure to those collect them.