Poor Ole General Whitelocke (see below)
Back in the 1930s Randolph G. Adams – bibliographer, historian, and first director of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan – wrote an amusing and controversial essay entitled “Librarians as Enemies of Books.”
For the past few years I’ve been slowly coming to the realization that the current equivalent of Adams’ ironic trope is “Auctioneers as Enemies of Archives.” Here’s the latest piece of evidence.
I got a call last week from George Fox at PBA Galleries, a book auction house in San Francisco. As he occasionally does, George was calling to let me know about some items in a forthcoming auction that might be of interest to me. Of course, it was actually a sales call – PBA trying to drum up interest in the material it had on offer – but I always appreciate the information. Especially since, in this case, I was engrossed in preparing Maritime List 210, and hadn’t even glanced at the PBA auction catalog, sitting unopened on my desk.
The material to which George was referring pertained to a whaling captain named Philander Winters whose whaleship, the Richmond, ran around and was wrecked in Bering’s Strait.
It was a fascinating and coherent archive, centering around the drama that accompanied the wreck and the legal complications that followed it. There were interesting letters and documents, and some wonderful examples of Hawaiian printing, including a crew list printed in Hawaiian and English.
Unfortunately, PBA had broken this archive into twenty lots.
I followed the auction online – another marvel of the Internet age – and was able to purchase a wonderful set of charts of the Yangtze River printed in Shanghai in 1889.
When the Richmond lots came up, I followed the action closely.
There was serious competition for almost all the items, from the floor, left bids, phone and Internet. I did not purchase any of them myself, but noted from the real time results posted on my computer screen that all the sales went to someone bidding from the floor. Since I wasn’t physically present in the gallery, I could only hope that the same bidder had gotten all the items, and that the integrity of the archive had been preserved. I called George the next day to arrange for shipment of my charts, and was happy to learn that the entire Richmond archive had, in fact, gone to one institution.
The ascendancy of the Internet and the resulting decline in the retail bricks and mortar book trade has been accompanied by, and possibly related to, the precipitous rise of auction houses in the rare book and manuscript market - most notably Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but also dozens of second-tier firms, as well as Internet auctions such as eBay. All these venues offer the attractive illusion of transparency and of sales driven purely by market forces.
It’s hooey, of course. Just smart PR. There are as many hinkey deals going down in auction rooms as were ever perpetrated by book dealers. The auction companies have simply been better at selling themselves. Bruce McKinney, who has otherwise done an admirable job with his Americana Exchange, seems to have been completely won over by the idea of auctions as a free and transparent markets. And he’s not the only one. Remember when book dealers bought estates? Nowadays well-meaning heirs consign estates to auction, certain that they’ll get a better deal.
The rise of the Internet and the corresponding advance of auction houses produced other important changes in the landscape of antiquarian books and paper.
Because of the Internet there is, at least in theory, no auction whose contents can not be universally known. This kind of Internet-driven global access puts new pressure on the material. More attention than ever before is paid to archival material. Competition increases, prices are driven up, and more material is pulled out of hiding. An unfortunate side effect is that more material than ever before is being stolen from institutions and offered for sale on those wonderfully transparent, free market, open venues like eBay.
Even without the criminal element, it’s not a pretty picture in my view. The current dominance of auction houses makes it more likely than ever that, when new material emerges, it will be sold at auction.
And, generally speaking, the financial realities that govern the auction market make it likely that an archive will be broken up to achieve maximum commercial value. The cream of any lot will be stripped out and sold individually. The rest will be jumbled together with no respect for the continuity or chronological integrity of the archive.
That’s what almost happened last week to the Richmond archive.
A NARRATIVE OF THE EXPEDITION TO, AND THE STORMING OF BUENOS AYRES BY THE BRITISH ARMY, COMMANDED BY LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WHITELOCKE (and) THE WHOLE PROCEEDINGS OF THE COURT MARTIAL, HELD ON GENERAL WHITELOCKE, FOR MISCONDUCT; THEREBY OCCASIONING THE DEFEAT OF THE BRITISH FORCES DESTINED TO CAPTURE BUENOS AYRES, AND THE EVACUATION OF THAT TOWN.HELD AT CHELSEA COLLEGE ON JANUARY, 28, AND FOLLOWING DAYS. SIR W. MEADOWS, PRESIDENT. Bath and Lon. n.d. (ie., 1807 and 1808). b/w frontis. map and frontis. portrait. 38, 32 pp.
Two rare pamphlets about the botched British invasions in the Rio de la Plata Basin in 1806 and 1807. As part of the Napoleonic Wars, British forces against Spain occupied Buenos Aires and Montevideo, in both cases being expelled by Spanish forces. In this incident the British General Whitelocke was defeated by a ragtag army in street fighting in Buenos Aires, and eventually pulled out of the area with his tail between his legs. Apart from its considerable effect on the Argentine independence movement, the defeat went over poorly in Britain. Whitelocke was court martialed and sacked. Worldcat shows five libraries holding copies of this title. The first pamphlet lacks the title page but has the map of the battle scene and key as frontispiece, as called for by Sabin 51805. The second title is complete and features a wonderful frontispiece portrait of the hapless General Whitelocke. Original wrappers bound in. Both bound in half calf over marbled boards. Two vols. VG $1500