Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2022 Issue

Christopher Coover: Remembered and Appreciated

Credible when handling the incredible

Christopher Coover recently passed away, leaving a remarkable history with Christie’s, richly detailed in the many important sales he catalogued as a team member.  Collections and collectors tend to be remembered while the folks with the green eyeshades who confirm, and describe material for consignors, are only rarely in the spotlight.  Mr. Coover, who joined Christie’s in 1980, would become a widely acknowledged expert in the collectible paper field during his 35 year career with them.


His tenure almost precisely bridged two tectonic shifts in the rare book auction field, the first in 1980-2 when Sotheby’s and Christie’s began to reorient their cataloguing to the retail bidder, and the other, when the Internet made cataloguing easier in the late 1990’s.  Before 1980, dealers were the principal buyers at auction and were expected to understand the what, why and wherefores.  The new cataloguing would embrace the challenge to educate new bidders, starting the trend to provide increasingly complex dissertations, broadening the audience and raising prices.  It’s now well established, to the point that in 2021, it became the first year to see total realizations at auction for books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera reach a billion dollars.  Mr. Coover’s approach and his excellence in cataloguing in Americana developed over four decades, today finds evidence of his impact on the writing and researching important catalogues worldwide every day. 


Chris’s history at Christie’s in New York began when Stephen C. Massey hired him in 1980 to join the Book Department alongside Bart Auerbach. Soon after a brief interlude with John Fleming, he would return and remain at Christie’s until his retirement in 2016 as Senior Vice President.


Over his career he assisted with and contributed insights about many of the icons of printed and manuscript history.  The Codex Hammer, a Leonardo manuscript, sold for $30.2 million in 1994 was one example.


In an 2011 interview with the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, he explained his work as, authenticating material offered for auction, describing its provenance and history for the auction catalogue, and then suggesting the opening price.  Contextualizing material was his art.


Many concur that his descriptions for the Forbes sales in the first years of the 21st  century  were his finest work.  Forbes’ material was acquired when the descriptions were much sparser. In Mr. Coover’s hands decades later, he re-introduced the same items as remarkable survivals, explaining their significance. In 6 sales, between 2002 and 2007, a small group of collectors and sundry bidders paid $40.9 million.  The first sale, on March 27, 2002, was the most spectacular, with 203 lots bringing $20,069,990. The second, on Oct. 9, 2002, with 232 lots, brought $9,366,000.


As a bidder Seth Kaller bought nearly 100 of those lots in the first 2 Forbes sales, and recently pointed out that at least 80 of them have since been donated to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History - whose programs now use those documents in more than 30,000 schools.  According to Kaller, Chris made it easy to get an idea of what really was in the letters and documents being offered, as opposed to just providing bibliographical and background information.


As a fellow warrior who would prepare auctions, Selby Kiffer, took a part-time summer job at Sotheby’s in 1984 and is today their International Senior Specialist for Books and Manuscripts.  And now remembers first meeting Chris in 1982, when they were both taking classes at Columbia’s Dewey School of Library Service with the redoubtable Terry Belanger. “He was already working at Christie’s  —I remember visiting him when Christie’s was on Park Avenue—while I was preparing to be an academic rare book librarian. We hit it off and we and our wives socialized for a time,” Kiffer recalled. “Once I started working at Sotheby’s, it became difficult to maintain a close friendship, but although we were often competitors, we always maintained a mutual respect. Certainly, for my part, I recognized Chris as a knowledgeable and passionate specialist.” 


Auction history tends to remember highest prices but his broad interest in context transforming documents into pieces of historical puzzles may well be his greatest contribution to the field.  Today, that approach is today the norm.


And while he will be principally remembered as discoverer and explicator of important documents, he was a collector himself of musical manuscripts and a regular on the Antiques Roadshow.


Stephen Massey describes him as “a cornerstone figure.”  A signal figure in the history of auction cataloguing.


And it turns out he not only made discoveries he also made many friends.


He made a difference and left his mark.

Posted On: 2022-05-01 01:59
User Name: mairin

Wonderful & touching piece, Bruce.
You hit all the marks.
Christopher Robin Coover is smiling.
- Maureen E. Mulvihill / Former Brooklyn neighbor of Coover.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Fine Books and Manuscripts
    8 December 2023
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: [Austen, Jane] — Isaac D'Israeli. Jane Austen's copy of Curiosities of Literature. 100,000 - 150,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: [Austen, Jane]. A handsome first edition in boards of the author's debut novel. 70,000 - 100,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Brontë, Charlotte. "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me..." 100,000 - 150,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Eliot, George. The author's magnum opus. 25,000 - 35,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Whitman, Walt. Manuscript written upon the Death of Lincoln, 1865. 60,000 - 80,000 USD
  • Sotheby’s
    Important Modern Literature from the Library of an American Filmmaker
    8 December 2023
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Kerouac, Jack. Typescript scroll of The Dharma Bums. Typed by Kerouac in Orlando, Florida, 1957, published by Viking in 1958. 300,000 - 500,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Hemingway, Ernest. The autograph manuscript of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." [Key West, finished April 1936]. 300,000 - 500,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Miller, Henry. Typescript of The Last Book, a working title for Tropic of Cancer, written circa 1931–1932. 100,000 - 150,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Ruscha, Ed. Twentysix Gasoline Stations, with a lengthy inscription to Joe Goode. 40,000 - 60,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Dec. 8: Hemingway, Ernest. in our time, first edition of Hemingway’s second book. 30,000 - 50,000 USD
  • Swann
    Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books
    December 7, 2023
    Swann, Dec. 7: Samuel Augustus Mitchell, A New Map of Texas, Oregon and California with the Regions Adjoining, Philadelphia, 1846. $3,500 to $5,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: 17th–19th-century case maps of various locations. $1,500 to $2,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Andreas Cellarius, Haemisphaerium Stellatum Boreale Cum Subiecto Haemisphaerio Terrestri, celestial chart, Amsterdam, 1708. $2,500 to $3,500.
    Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books
    December 7, 2023
    Swann, Dec. 7: Vincenzo Coronelli, Set of engraved gores for Coronelli’s monumental 42-inch terrestrial globe, Venice, circa 1688–97. $18,000 to $22,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, group of four navigational charts, Antwerp, 1580s. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Thomas Bros, Block Book of Berkeley, Oakland, 1920s. $800 to $1,200.
    Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books
    December 7, 2023
    Swann, Dec. 7: John Nieuhoff & John Ogilby, An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, map of China, plan of Canton, London, 1673. $1,200 to $1,800.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Frederick Sander, Reichenbachia, St. Albans, 1888-1894. $5,000 to $7,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Two early illustrated works on horsemanship and breeding, Nuremberg, early 18th century. $700 to $800.
    Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books
    December 7, 2023
    Swann, Dec. 7: John Gould, A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans. Supplement to the First Edition, London, 1834; 1855. $40,000 to $60,000.
    Swann, Dec. 7: John Pinkerton, A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World, London, 1808–14. $1,500 to $2,500.
    Swann, Dec. 7: Oakley Hoopes Bailey, Hackensack, New Jersey, Boston, 1896. $800 to $1,200.
    Valuable Books and Manuscripts
    London auction
    13 December
    Find out more
    Christie’s, Explore now
    TREW, Christoph Jacob (1695–1769). Plantae Selectae quarum imagines ad exemplaria naturalia Londini in hortus curiosorum. [Nuremberg: 1750–1773]. £30,000–40,000
    Christie’s, Explore now
    VERBIEST, Ferdinand (1623–88). Liber Organicus Astronomiae Europaeae apud Sinas restituate. [Beijing: Board of Astronomy, 1674]. £250,000–350,000
    Christie’s, Explore now
    PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF ALICE & NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT. Master of Jean Rolin (active 1445–65). Book of Hours, use of Paris, in Latin and French, [Paris, c.1450–1460]. £120,000–180,000
    Christie’s, Explore now
    A SILVER MICROSCOPE. Probably by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), c.1700. £150,000–250,000
    Christie’s, Explore now
    C.1311. £100,000–150,000
  • Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Roberts (David) & Croly (George). The Holy Land, Syria, Idumae, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia. Lond. 1842 - 1843 [-49]. First Edn. €10,000 to €15,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Incunabula: O'Fihily (Maurice). Duns Scotus Joannes: O'Fihely, Maurice Abp… Venice, 20th November 1497. €8,000 to €12,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: An important file of documents with provenance to G.A. Newsom, manager of the Jacob’s Factory in Dublin, occupied by insurgents during Easter Week 1916. €6,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: WILDE (Oscar), 1854-1900, playwright, aesthete and wit. A lock of Wilde’s Hair, presented by his son to the distinguished Irish actor Mícheál MacLiammóir. €6,000 to €8,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Heaney (Seamus). Bog Poems, London, 1975. Special Limited Edition, No. 33 of 150 Copies, Signed by Author. Illus. by Barrie Cooke. €4,000 to €6,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Binding: Burke, Thomas O.P. (de Burgo). Hibernia Dominicana, Sive Historia Provinciae Hiberniae Ordinis Praedicatorum, ... 1762. First Edition. €4,000 to €6,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: COLLINS, Michael. An important TL, 29 July 1922, addressed to GOVERNMENT on ‘suggested Proclamation warning all concerned that troops have orders to shoot prisoners found sniping, ambushing etc.’. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Scott Fitzgerald (F.) The Great Gatsby, New York (Charles Scribner's Sons) 1925, First Edn. €2,000 to €3,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Yeats (W.B.) The Poems of W.B. Yeats, 2 vols. Lond. (MacMillan & Co.) 1949. Limited Edition, No. 46 of 375 Copies Only, Signed by W.B. Yeats. €1,500 to €2,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Miller (William) Publisher. The Costume of the Russian Empire, Description in English and French, Lg. folio London (S. Gosnell) 1803. First Edn. €1,000 to €1,500.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Miller (William) Publisher. The Costume of Turkey, Illustrated by a Series of Engravings. Lg. folio Lond.(T. Bensley) 1802. First Edn. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, Dec. 12-13: Mason (Geo. Henry). The Costume of China, Illustrated with Sixty Engravings. Lg. folio London (for W. Miller) 1800. First Edn. €1,400 to €1,800

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