RARE! Details below
As I may have mentioned I’ve been working on a book about the American explorer John Ledyard for about a year. Basically, the “plot” of the book is that I trace an early journey of Ledyard’s - down the Connecticut river from Dartmouth College to Hartford – by walking along the river and meditating on John Ledyard as I go. His America in 1773 and our America now. You get the idea.
After dropping out of Dartmouth College, Ledyard secured a position as Corporal of the Marines aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution on its third and final voyage to the South Seas. In 1783 he returned to Hartford and wrote a narrative of his adventures with Cook. A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage was the first American travel book, and its account of Cook’s murder in Hawaii differed substantially from official British reports. It is now a rare and valuable book.
I’ve owned Ledyard’s Journal once before.
Early in the 1990s I got a call from a gentleman on the west coast. He told me he had an assortment of rare maritime voyages and, because he was moving to smaller quarters and had reached the limit of his interest in such books, he wished to dispose of his collection. The standard chitchat ensued, in the course of which he disclosed that he was happily married, the father of children with no interest in his library, and that he had little tolerance for auction gallery b.s. He simply, sensibly, wanted a fair price for his goods so he could get on with his move.
I asked him about the books.
He named half a dozen high spots in the literature – Hakluyt, Cook, Vancouver, several Drakes, Anson, Frobisher - then mentioned John Ledyard’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.
I’d heard of it, never seen it, but knew that it was a rarity. Furthermore I knew from studying the catalogs of my betters that it had been published with a map delineating Ledyard’s travels with Captain Cook, but that few copies containing the map had survived. (Ledyard, with typical lack of foresight, sold his groundbreaking copyright to his publisher, who probably elected to save a few dollars by omitting the map from the rest of the edition.)
“Does it have a map?”
“Why, yes. It does.”
“I’ll be there in two days.”
The gentleman turned out to be as reasonable as he’d sounded on the phone. I was able to purchase the library, including Ledyard’s book, which soon sold to an institution for what I thought at the time was a magnificent sum. I’d pay twice that to have it back now. It had the map.
So, over the past year, as I researched Ledyard and thought about his life, that book has been much on my mind. I wondered if I’d ever own another copy. Then, sure enough, one came my way.
My new copy lacks the map, as almost all copies do. It’s in a crummy black buckram binding and it’s trimmed close, with partial loss of a page number or two (indicating its prior owners had no idea of its value or importance, and just sent it off to a cheap binder, who butchered it). But it is indisputably genuine, and indisputably mine. For as short a while as possible.
This reminds me of an aspect of our trade that I’ve been wanting to comment on for quite some time. It was true when I had a retail shop. It was true when I was selling used books in quantity on the Internet. And it’s true now that I am dealing in (or attempting to deal in) rarities. It is simply this:
Any real money I’ve ever made at this game has come from a big find, a lucky hit, a long-awaited score. Whether it’s a library or a single book, the sale is clean and the profit huge. However, these opportunities are few and far between. True success in the business has always been a matter of managing my affairs in such a way that I avoid starving in the interval between one big find and the next.
Over the years I’ve spoken about this with colleagues at every level of the trade, from scouting yard sales to the international book and antique circuit, and they all agree. The real trick is finding a way to survive between those big hits. Maybe I’ll call it “Gibson’s First Law of Bookselling.” Or maybe I’ll put it in the Ledyard book, right at the beginning. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”
At any rate, the Ledyard is headed for California, where I hope it soon finds a home.
Ledyard, John. A JOURNAL OF CAPTAIN COOK’S LAST VOYAGE TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN IN SEARCH OF A NORTHWEST PASSAGE... Nathaniel Patten. Hartford. 1783. 208 pp. First edition of one of the rarest American travels. “This adventurous American enlisted as a corporal of marines under Captain Cook, who was then about to sail on his third voyage... Not only was he the first New Englander in the Pacific, but he went there under... Cook, and was with him when Hawaii was discovered. Ledyard visualized in great detail how the northwest coast-China’s trade should be carried out... The author’s narrative... includes a detailed account of the death of Cook.” - Hill 991. Streeter 3477. Howes L-181. Old ink writing on title page, pages evenly tanned, but clean. Lacking map, which Howes says is “usually missing.” Rebound in modern black cloth. $20,000
Next week: Report from the San Francisco Book and Paper Show