The Collector Becomes a Seller
For this, my second auction, I've consigned to Bonham's who have been studying my American collection for months and preparing descriptions and images for inclusion in a hard-bound catalogue due to be released in late October. Just as a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client I long ago recognized that the organizing of a collection to sell requires intelligent, dispassionate perspective and description that are best provided by they who sell rather than they who own. To ensure impartiality I have, from the outset, ceded control of estimates to the house. I have asked only that the what, when, and from whom purchased details are included in the descriptions. In selling material I have valued I do not seek confirmation that I bought well or wisely. I'll return it to the market in the same spirit I acquired it - with great interest but no specific expectation. I understand the estimates will be consistently below what I paid ten to twenty years ago. The auction would not be interesting otherwise.
I am of course hopeful of a good outcome but if there is one, it will be overall. Some items will sell for a song while others do well. In either case the market will render a decision. I will not intrude with reserves that protect the lots from rejection. The material is extremely good, often exemplary, more than half purchased from or through the William Reese Company.
Now as I write this piece the collection is in the hands of Christina Geiger, Director of Books and Manuscripts in New York and two cataloguers, Adam Stackhouse and Matthew Haley, who together are creating a coherent narrative and telling the story of an emerging continent, whose boundaries and salient characteristics are, as the collection begins in 1630, yet to be fully described. In the collection what was then known is described in the different languages of the explorers as their backers and investors angle for control. The Dutch, English, Spanish and French all seeking, from great remove, to control by words what they barely comprehend, a geography two and a half times as large as Europe, itself still an incomplete idea. These early books both convey the story and suggest the posting of flags, the "hey we're here" implications that buttress aspirations and claims, the "we don't know what we have but we have it" perspective.
In the progression of the material, always in date order, the British become established in America, the French in Canada and the Spanish in Mexico. Development and control then becomes chess on a grand scale. For the home countries it is a losing game although it will take time to play out. Ultimately the increasingly ungrateful explorers, settlers and pioneers of America become its proprietors and demand independence, an outcome as inevitable as the timing is uncertain. Such large places are ungovernable without consent of the governed. We know this today. In breaking away, the Americans strike first, next the Canadians and then the Mexicans; the absence of cooperation and the leeway to govern locally mostly determining the inevitable divorces.
With the coming of the 19th century, industrial development, the spread of literacy and the suppression of fatal illness together make it possible for the landless indigent to reach American shores and find, in its vastness, a place to settle and prosper. This leads to the final portion of this collection, the western advance.
Through the century accounts, explanations, perspectives, maps and illustrations are transformed. Some books tell us of discovery. Others confirm common knowledge. More information is needed; more is gathered, and more distributed. Literacy, the lucky possession of a few at the turn of the century becomes the widely held essential skill of an America moving from farm to factory, from country to city. In the explosion of literacy, in the proliferation of printed material, we see the confirmation that more people can read and that they want to read more.