Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2003 Issue

A Collector’s Collection:The Rosenbach Museum & Library

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…A large pile of obviously very old papers was impressively arranged on the table against a background of Jacobean woodwork. The Doctor, with the usual preliminaries to such an event, food and drink, inside him, was keyed up to his role as a super-salesman. What the Doctor was attempting to sell was worthy of his mettle. It was, in effect, a whole archive of the early history of Peru, with the names of the early explorers shining in it like Inca gold. There on the table…was the bill of sale received by Pizarro for the armada of ships which he and his fellows bought from Pedro de Alvarado on August 26, 1534, for 100,000 pesos of gold. There was Alvarado’s transfer to these same explorers of his grant from Charles V to discover, conquer, and pacify the islands and coasts of the South Sea. There was the order of the viceroy of Peru in 1580 calling back the Indian runners who had been stationed along the coast to convey the news of the passage through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean of the English freebooters under Sir Francis Drake. The collection, however, was not merely a choice handful of colorful documents by and relating to a few great figures in history; it was a mass of hundreds of documents telling the story of an epic. The soldiers, the monks, the nobles, the Indians of sixteenth and seventeenth century Peru came alive and filled the dining room with the aura of blood, iron, gold, and incense.


Skillfully, Dr. Rosenbach told Harkness of what tremendous value such a mine of source material would be to the Prescotts of the future. Reverently, he picked up a document to show him the rubric which served as a signature for Pizarro. What a treasured addition the collection would make to one of the country’s great libraries, the Library of Congress! How Mr. Harkness would honor the nation with, and be honored by the nation for, such a gift! The Doctor grew more and more eloquent, his eyes twinkling behind his spectacles, his voice cracking with excitement. “Jesus Christ, it’s the greatest lot of Americana in the world!” he finished, seeming to tremble with awe at the relics of history before him. He wiped the tears of enthusiasm from his eyes and relit the cigar he had permitted to go out in his ecstasy. “Don’t cry, Doctor! I’ll take them,” Harkness said, thinking of no other way, as had others in the same situation, of restoring Dr. Rosenbach’s equanimity. Harkness bought the lot for $550,000 [in 1928], the largest sale the Rosenbachs ever made and the largest sale of its kind, except for whole libraries, ever made in the rare book business [as of the biography’s 1960 publication date].
---Rosenbach, pp.300-301.
AT: Let me switch gears altogether after slipping in that great story. How old exactly is the Museum? When was it founded?

MB: The Museum opened in 1954, just after both Rosenbachs’ death. Our fiftieth anniversary is in 2004.

Rare Book Monthly

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