Frank Sherwin Streeter was a book collector for forty years, from around 1966 until his death in 2006. Over that time he formed a wonderful collection of books, pamphlets and maps on the exploration of the Pacific and the Arctic , travels in the United States , atlases, early navigational guides, and more theoretical works on mathematics and cosmography related to navigation. By the time of his death his collection was one of the most distinguished to be formed in his fields of interest. Like most collections, it grew organically as it progressed, and as Frank’s knowledge deepened or interests changed. It was certainly an endeavor which gave him great pleasure, and perhaps more importantly for him, brought him into genial contact with many like-minded people, most especially his fellow members of the Walpole Society. (Note 1, Frank Streeter’s collection was sold by Christie’s New York on April 16-17, 2007 . Their well-executed two-volume catalogue, The Frank S. Streeter Library Important Navigation, Pacific Voyages, Cartography, Science, provides a detailed record of Frank’s collection, and will be referred to in this article as “FSS Sale” with the appropriate lot numbers. Details of buyers at the sale are based on the sale room observations of William Reese. All prices quoted from auctions of any period are inclusive of the fees being charged by the houses at the time of the sale.)
In some ways it is surprising that Frank became a book collector at all; standard texts on children rebelling against their parents would predict the opposite. Frank’s father, Thomas W. Streeter, was without doubt the greatest Americana book collector of the 20th century, and a major figure in the American book world from 1920 to 1965, as a bibliographer, collector, and supporter of rare book libraries. Frank wrote engagingly about his father as a collector in the 1984 Note Book. (Note 2, Frank S. Streeter, “Recollections of Thomas W. Streeter and his Collecting,” The Walpole Society Note Book 1984, pp. 43-51.) As he narrates, his father was a rather remote figure to his children, far more interested in his books then them. Frank told me that all of the Streeter children formed an antipathy to book collecting after their playroom was taken over to be a library. As long as his father was alive Frank had no interest in following a very hard act.
When Thomas W. Streeter died in 1965, he required his executors to sell his books at auction, or at least those that were deemed worthy of individual lots. First, though, he left each of his children their choice of a book from his collection as a remembrance. One of Frank’s brothers chose a non-book object instead, while his sister took an inscribed copy of Henry Thoreau’s A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers ( Boston , 1849). Henry Streeter picked the first edition of Samuel Champlain’s Les Voyages… ( Paris , 1613), a book he later gave to the American Antiquarian Society, where Thomas Streeter had been President from 1952-55, and where Henry was on the Council for several decades. Despite this selection, the Champlain inspired no particular love in Henry of early Canadiana. Frank picked a very different era and style of book, Henry Warre’s Sketches In North America And The Oregon Territory ( London , 1848). Warre was a British army captain who was sent on a perilous mission with dispatches across Canada to the Oregon Country at the height of the political crisis with Great Britain over its ownership in 1846. In the end his breakneck trip across the continent was a moot point, but Warre employed his time usefully by making a wonderful series of watercolors while crossing the Rockies and in Oregon . On returning to London , Warre published these in a color plate book which is one of the most beautiful illustrated works on the American West. Acquiring the Warre had a great impact on Frank, and it remained one of his favorite books to the end of his life. After any copy appeared at auction, Frank would quickly be on the phone to me to find out what it had sold for and the circumstances. Although never a close tracker of price trends (one well-known collector I knew caused the front boards to pop off many of his books by stuffing clipped notes on advancing prices inside the front cover) he took the greatest pleasure in watching the rise in value of the one book for which he had paid nothing.
The Thomas W. Streeter sale, held at Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1966-69, was a landmark in every way. It was the greatest book sale held in the United State in decades in terms of its contents, and had the most elaborate catalogue, in seven volumes and an index, ever prepared for an American book auction up to that point. At that time the idea of long notes explaining the material was a revolutionary one for the auction houses, who provided no estimates, and assumed that a collector would retain a dealer to advise them and bid for them. The notes were largely drawn from Tom Streeter’s own working notebooks, or from the penciled notes he had written on the items themselves. With the confidence of a man who knew his provenance was going to add value someday, he wrote those notes firmly with a very sharp No. 1 pencil on even the rarest material. He also infused credit into the sale by leaving bequests to a number of institutions, many of whom spent the proceeds at the auction, allowing various libraries to acquire material while advancing prices at the same time. In the end the whole sale realized $3,102,982, at that time a record for any book auction (at least in nominal dollars), and a result that allowed Frank to feel he had some book-related money to spent on books. (Note 3, The Celebrated Collection Of Americana Formed By The Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter (New York, 1966-69, in seven volumes, index 1970.) Notes on buyers at the TWS sale are based on William Reese’s copy of the catalogue, which collates the annotated saleroom notes of a number of the major participants).
With the Warre as a catalyst and his father’s sale offering a string of treasures in extensive sessions every six months, Frank took the next step in collecting and started bidding. It is impossible to tell what his first purchase was with certainty, because later in his career Frank bought a number of books which had belonged to his father as well as those he actually acquired at the auction. Forty-one books with TWS sale provenance eventually appeared in the FSS sale. It seems unlikely that he bid at the first two sessions, but at the third session in October, 1967 an astute observer (Archibald Hanna of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, who had negotiated the purchase of Thomas Streeter’s famed Texas collection for Yale) spotted him as the successful bidder on three lots; William Bullock, Sketch Of A Journey Through The Western States… ( London , 1827) (TWS sale 1365, FSS sale 78), John Woods, Two Years’ Residence In Illinois … ( London , 1822) (TWS sale 1437, FSS sale 533), and William Oliver, Eight Months In Illinois … ( Newcastle , 1843) (TWS sale 1478, FSS sale 397). I suspect this is the occasion on which the photograph which serves as the frontispiece to his own sale catalogue showing Frank bidding may have been taken, because he soon decided it was better to seek the advice of dealers and bid through them. It remains somewhat of a mystery what his interest in fairly standard Midwestern travel books may have been, but he acquired a number more in the first several years of his collecting. In any case, he had crossed a Rubicon that every collector reaches – he had gone out and spent what was at the time quite a bit of money for several small objects only because he liked them.
At this point Frank, a methodical businessman, must have given the whole business some serious reflection. If he was going to be a book collector, as seemed to be happening, what did he really want to collect? His father’s overarching theme was the idea of Americana Beginnings – the earliest books about, or printed in, North America from the beginning of discovery through the Alaska Gold Rush. Frank spent World War II in the Navy, in the Caribbean and then in the Pacific. Here he had learned to deal with the practical issues of seamanship and navigation. He had also been a student of Samuel Eliot Morison while an undergraduate at Harvard, and could temper what he learned of maritime history with his real experience in the sea and navigation, especially in the Pacific area. As he wrote to Marcus McCorison at the American Antiquarian Society a few years later, “As a naval officer with some service in the Pacific in World War II, that region has quite fascinated me….” (Note 4, FSS letter of Jan. 13, 1970 to Marcus McCorison, AAS archives.) Between the third and fourth sessions of his father’s sale he evidently reached a resolution.
In the fourth session, in April, 1968, the Thomas Streeter sale reached Pacific Voyages (the whole sale catalogue is arranged topically). This time Frank was systematic. He retained the services of Michael Walsh of Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston to represent him. Mike was one of the most experienced veterans in the business, having started working at Goodspeed’s as an errand boy in 1909, and managing the Americana department since 1915. (He was still minding the store in 1982, aged 88, when I walked in on a hot sleepy day in August to discover that he was going without lunch because no other staff were there. I watched the store for him for fifteen minutes while he went out to get a sandwich.) Mike had been one of the three booksellers who had appraised the Thomas Streeter library after his death (the other two were Roland Tree of Henry Stevens, Stiles, and Lindley Eberstadt of Edward Eberstadt & Sons). Mike was a perfect guide, and Frank brought home four books, the best being a magnificent copy, with the plates most unusually hand-colored, by Sydney Parkinson, A Journal Of A Voyage To The South Seas … ( London , 1773), one of the primary accounts of James Cook’s first voyage by the naturalist on board (TWS sale 2406, $950; FSS sale 402, $48,000 to Heald).
It was another year before more major Pacific voyages came up at the sixth session of the sale in April of 1969. By this time Frank had evidently further refined his focus to be “the exploration for a Northwest Passage and in the opening up of the Pacific in the 18th century.” With expansion into other Arctic books, and the exploration of the Pacific until the mid-19th century, these themes remained central to Frank’s collecting for the rest of his career. While it is not possible to tell if all of the lots were acquired at the sale, he ended up with fifteen lots from the Northwest voyages which appeared there, with such classics as Vancouver, the first British voyage to Hawaii and the Northwest Coast after Cook (TWS sale 3497, $1300; FSS sale 510, $72,000 to Arader), Broughton, who executed the first detailed surveys of Puget and Nootka Sounds, (TWS sale 3500, $1100, FSS sale 73, $36,000 to order), and Krusenstern, one of the primary accounts of early Russian voyages to the Northwest Coast in an association copy (TWS sale 3505, $850, FSS sale 304, $38,400 to Harrington). (Note 5, For a full view of Frank’s holdings from session six of TWS sale, see FSS sale 73, 82, 117, 160, 161, 162, 201, 262, 301, 311, 328, 339, 362, 374, 510.) Frank also began in this session to collect the pamphlets around the so-called Dobbs-Middleton controversy, based on the disparate arguments of whether or not there was a western outlet from Hudson ’s Bay into a Northwest Passage . This dispute evolved into a pamphlet war between Arthur Dobbs, a merchant and later British governor of North Carolina and the ship captain Christopher Middleton. Some of the pamphlets in this shrill war of words have long been regarded as the black tulips of early Arctic voyages, and one of the minor triumphs of Frank’s collection was his ultimate success in getting them all, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1997. (Note 6, See FSS sale 155-162, 362, and 363. At the sale they were bitterly fought over, all but one going to a determined phone bidder, #1702, who presumably already had the one that got away.)
By the end of the Thomas Streeter sale, Frank was firmly established as a collector. In the fall 1969 he bought a group of Arctic voyages from the English dealer Frank Hammond, acquired more American travels at the stock dispersal sale of the New York dealer Peter Decker, and began to buy more broadly. Most importantly, he established a relationship with the dealer Kenneth Nebenzahl, whom he had met at one of the second Streeter sale session. Based in Chicago , Ken had become one of the leading dealers in Americana and especially American cartography, and was a major factor in the entire sale. Frank and Ken quickly formed a warm rapport which broadened into a lifelong friendship, and Ken became Frank’s principal dealer for most of his career. Unlike the dealers closely associated with his father, Ken was younger than Frank by more than a decade, a step toward finding his own style of collecting rather than his father’s. Perhaps as a result of Ken’s influence, Frank’s interest in cartography broadened, and he acquired such atlases as Bellin’s Le Petit Atlas Maritime… ( Paris , 1764) (FSS sale 32) and Jefferys’ The American Atlas… ( London , 1778) (FSS sale 284).
1970 brought widespread recognition of Frank’s seriousness as a collector, no doubt aided by being the son of Thomas W. Streeter. In that year he was elected to the nation’s leading association of book collectors, New York’s Grolier Club, in which he was active for the rest of his life, and President of from 1982-85. He was also elected to the Walpole Society, from which so many happy associations in his life sprang (his brother Henry was elected in 1974). In the spring of 1971 he was elected to the American Antiquarian Society, and within a few years he became active in support of, and later on the boards of, the John Carter Brown Library and the New-York Historical Society.
In 1971 the Philadelphia collector Boies Penrose decided to sell his remarkable collection of early travel and exploration books at auction in London . Penrose had been a devoted collector in the field for decades, and had taken advantage of great buying opportunities in the 1920s and ‘30s. He was also a noted scholar of early voyages, and wrote several books that remain the most readable and useful surveys of the field for collector-historians. (Note 7, See particularly his Travel And Discovery In The Renaissance [ Cambridge , 1952]. For Penrose, see Donald Dickinson, ed., Dictionary Of American Book Collectors [ New York , 1986], pp. 256-57, and Grolier 2000 A Further Grolier Club Biographical Retrospective [ New York , 2000], pp.284-286.) The Penrose collection was rich in 16th century narratives, as well as early works on navigation and seamanship. For the most part Penrose’s holdings were outside the scope of the kinds of books Thomas W. Streeter collected, and Frank’s vigorous participation, both in nature and volume, in the sale marked his full evolution as a collector in his own right outside of fields already trod by his father.
Ultimately Frank’s library contained twenty of the 366 books offered at Penrose. (Note 8, See FSS sale 49, 133, 198, 260, 280, 322, 327, 335, 249, 381, 391, 428, 433, 465, 471, 474, 483, 491, 515, 532). Some of these were bought from Nebenzahl after the fact, but most, including all of the important ones, were bought with Ken bidding as his agent at the sale itself. The first book up was the most important, Peter Martyr, The Decades Of The New Worlde Or West India … ( London , 1555), the first English language collection of voyage narratives, translated from the works of the Spanish court official and official historian of the Indies by Richard Eden. The Penrose copy was a superb example in contemporary binding, originally belonging to one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship captains, Roger North. It proved to be the second most expensive item in the Penrose sale, and would be the third most expensive in Frank’s – a solid pillar to build around (Penrose sale 10, $15,600, FSS sale 349, $768,000 to Reese). Non-American material took a large step forward with the purchase of Pedro Quiros, Terra Australis Incognita… ( London , 1617), one of the earliest descriptions of any part of Australia (Penrose sale 82, $4560, FSS sale 428, $84,000 to Reese). Northwest Passage material was enhanced with Thomas James, The Strange And Dangerous Voyage Of Captaine Thomas James… ( London , 1633), one of the first serious probes of Hudson ’s Bay (Penrose sale 280, $3600, FSS sale 280, $102,000 to Lan). A step toward purely cosmographical material was made with Robert Recorde, The Castle Of Knowledge ( London , 1556), the earliest major English astronomical treatise (Penrose sale 351, $3600, FSS sale 433, $90,000 to a phone bidder). Another non-American addition was the first English edition of the narrative of a landmark early Dutch voyage to the South Pacific, and the first to round Cape Horn rather than sailing through the Straits of Magellan, Willem Schouten, The Relation Of A Wonderfull Voiage… ( London , 1619) (Penrose sale 217, $2880, FSS sale $168,000 to Reese). All of the Penrose purchases added significant and important works which seldom appeared on the market. In the final result of Frank’s sale about one-eighth of its entire value was realized out of the twenty Penrose books.
The period from 1970 to 1975 marked the height of Frank’s collecting. In 1972 and 1974 respectively he purchased the Samuel Champlain’s Voyages… ( Paris , 1619) (FSS sale 100) and the same author’s collected Les Voyages… ( Paris , 1632) (FSS sale 101). From Nebenzahl in 1972 he bought a magnificent set the five volumes of Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, ( London , 1625-26), the most extensive early English collection of voyages, in a stunning contemporary morocco binding. It was certainly one of the most beautiful books in Frank’s collection. The second edition of the Eden translation, now titled The History Of Travayle In The West And East Indies (London, 1577) (FSS sale 350), was bought from the firm of Lathrop Harper, as well as the copy of the English edition of Juan Gonzales de Mendoza, The Historie Of The Great And Mightie Kingdome Of China… ( London , 1588), which had belonged to the great English sailor Thomas Cavendish. This provoked one of the epic bidding wars at Frank’s sale (FSS sale lot 232, the phone vs. Block, the latter winning at $216,000 on a pre-sale estimate of $12,000-$18,000). A steady flow of acquisitions added to the collection regularly in this period.
In 1974 another sale loomed. Harrison D. Horblit, a Harvard man from slightly before Frank’s era, was another collector whose love of the sea had first led him into collecting maritime and navigational books. By the 1970s his interests had expanded broadly, and he had become one of the pioneer collectors of the history of science and of photography (Note 7, See Grolier 2000…, pp.153-156). He decided to sell some of his navigational books at Sotheby’s in London , and the first two sessions, alphabetically arranged through the letter “G”, took place in June and November, 1974. On this occasion Frank bid through Nebenzahl and the Anglo-American dealer Franklin Brooke-Hitching, who had worked for Nebenzahl before moving to England . He ultimately took home seventeen lots from a strongly contested sale. One of the stars of the sale was Horblit’s copy of Sir Robert Dudley, Arcano Del Mare ( Florence , 1661). Produced by an exiled Englishman, it is generally considered the first world maritime atlas with charts on the Mercator projection, a magnificent work with hundreds of engraved maps and illustrations in two large folio bindings. The Horblit copy was a magnificent example, bound in contemporary gilt-stamped vellum, and a gorgeous thing to behold. Frank had to bid strongly to get it, but in the end it was the most expensive single lot at his sale (Horblit sale 323, $22,800, FSS sale 166, $824,000 to Block). Hardly less wonderful than this was the earliest navigational guide with major references to the navigation of the New World , Martin Fernandez de Encisco, Suma De Geographica… ( Seville , 1519), a beautiful copy bound in 17th century mottled Spanish calf. Few books so epitomize the excitement of the opening up of the navigation of the world, the titlepage decorated with an outstretched hand grasping an astrolabe (Horblit sale 369, $10,800, FSS sale 178, $288,000 to Reese). Frank took an important step toward more theoretical works the second edition of Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium… ( Basle , 1566), a beautiful copy in contemporary vellum which had belonged to the first professor of geometry at Oxford , Henry Briggs (Horblit sale 241, $17,850, FSS sale 241, $180,000 to Massey). Another important 16th century English work on navigation was Martin Cortes, The Arte Of Navigation… ( London , 1572), with its striking map of the Atlantic (Horblit sale 247, $6240, FSS sale 126, $120,000 to Massey).
The two sessions of the Horblit sale were possibly Frank’s finest hour as a book collector, as he reached high against strong competition for some very important books, and spent more money (judged against the market and inflation) than he did on any other occasion. There is no telling what might have happened if the Horblit sales had continued, but Horblit, who felt his books should have done better (they did very well for the time) and who didn’t need the money in any event (it was widely felt he put the sale on simply to demonstrate what an astute collector he had been) decided not to sell any more after the letter “G”. Some of the books later came on the market through H.P. Kraus, but most of the important ones were ultimately given to Harvard, a result Frank would not have quarreled with in any event. As with the Penrose books, the Horblit group was a significant part of Frank’s final sale, also realizing about an eighth of the final result. (Note 9 Students of comparative valuation will be interested in the statistics of the three primary sales which contributed to the building of Frank’s collection. The books from the TWS sale of 1966-69 realized 22.12 times as much at the FSS sale. However, if one excludes The Atlantic Neptune, which distorts the sample by its size, and which he bought long after the fact, the ratio is 26.29 times. The books from the Penrose sale of 1971 did best, realizing 29.31 times. The Horblit sale of 1974 realized 17.87 times as much in the FSS sale.)
As the collection progressed and deepened, Frank expanded on the various themes which intrigued him. Although travels with the United States were never a major interest, he did acquire the basic triumvirate of early western explorations within the Louisiana Purchase, those by Zebulon Pike, Edwin James on the Long Expedition, and Lewis and Clark (FSS sale 427, 279, 325). The last, a beautiful copy in contemporary tree calf, equaled his father’s in auction performance; Thomas Streeter’s copy in original boards set a long-standing record by selling for $35,000 in 1967, while Frank’s set a new record for the book in calf at $288,000 (to a phone bidder). He also bought a number of classic works of travel in the American West, particularly California , which had a Pacific tinge. In Pacific voyages he extended his interest into the 19th century, adding a number of the great French Grand Voyages such as Duflot de Mofras, Duhaut-Cilly, Dumont D’Urville, and Duperrey (FSS sale 167, 170, 171, 172, and 173). His interest in the technical aspects of navigation continued to grow, such as the struggle of John Harrison to find an accurate method of determining longitude. Over time Frank built a fine group of material on Harrison (FSS sale 251-256). Atlases were added from time to time, such as the wonderful collection of Spanish navigational charts by Vincente Tofino de San Miguel he bought from Nebenzahl, which provoked strong competition at the sale (FSS sale 501, $120,000 to Arader). Canadian material early and late with some bearing on the Northwest Passage continued to be added, extended into the 19th century to include some of the many publications relating to the final expedition of Sir John Franklin and the numerous searchers trying to discover his fate. A few travels to other parts of the world were added as well.
Around 1980, Frank began to seriously develop the more strictly scientific part of his collection. He already possessed numerous important early practical navigation works and some of a more theoretical nature. There were two probable catalysts for this expanding interest. The first was the sale of the Robert Honeyman collection in London . A mining engineer and graduate of Lehigh University , Honeyman formed a pioneering assemblage of works on science and the applied engineering arts, as well as important collections of literature and Darwin which he left to Lehigh. The sale began in 1978, but Frank’s lack of participation in the earlier sessions and participation in the 1980 sales (the sale was alphabetical) suggests a definite awakening about this time. Here he acquired the first of several important volumes by Johannes Kepler, Tabulae Rudolphinae… ( Ulm , 1627) (Honeyman sale 1802, FSS sale 297, $120,000 to Massey). Linked to the Honeyman sale was the beginning of a warm association with Jonathan Hill, then emerging as the leading American dealer in the history of science and the son of the collector Kenneth Hill, another collector of Pacific Voyage books (Note 9, Ken Hill gave his collection to the University of California at San Diego in 1974 It is recorded in detail in a revised second edition of The Hill Collection Of Pacific Voyages… [New Haven, William Reese Company, 2004]). Jonathan assumed the role as dealer in the more theoretical science books which Nebenzahl filled in travel. Frank was increasingly interested in this sort of book, and they became his predominant focus, especially after Nebenzahl retired from active business in the late 1980s.
While he bought books from various sources over the years, Frank generally preferred to acquire books from his favorite dealers, or to have them bid for him at auction or vet books he became aware of in other dealer’s stocks. Initially this had been Nebenzahl and Brooke-Hitching, then Hill in science. As the 1980s went on, he also dealt with Helen Kahn in Montreal for Canadian and Arctic books, and myself in New Haven for Americana (I frequently saw Frank in New York at the Grolier Club, and served on its Council with him while he was President). Frank usually attended the New York Book Fair, and I often ran into him at New York auctions as an observer. He savored these buying and selling events as I think he liked all book events, because he enjoyed the people who collected books and sold books, and because he liked to watch the market and the players in it. How much he would have enjoyed his own sale, had he lived to see it!
In 1993, Frank acquired one of the major landmarks of his collection, his father’s copy of The Atlantic Neptune. This remarkable coastal atlas, under the administration of Joseph F.W. Des Barres, was sponsored by the Admiralty with the intention of mapping in precise detail the entire coastline of North America from Newfoundland to the mouth of the Mississippi. Beginning publication in 1774, it never completed its southern end, but produced many stunning charts, enlivened with vignettes of towns and places inset in the maps. Because the plates were constantly revised, and because copies would be made up to fill individual ships’ needs, no two sets are alike. The Streeter copy, bound for use on board a ship, is particularly beautiful in its coloring and condition. At the Thomas Streeter sale it was the third most expensive item, selling via Sessler to Walpolean Richard Dietrich. When Dick parted with the set at Christie’s in 1993, I bought it, and shortly thereafter sold it to Frank. It was both a pillar of his atlas collection and of the books he owned from his father’s library. In the event it was the second most expensive book at his sale (FSS sale 148, $779,200 to Massey).
The purchase of the Neptune was, I think, another turning point for Frank as a collector. He was seventy-five and at the point of finally retiring from active business. He owned many wonderful books, and the evolution of prices had reached a point where the new valuations were many times what he had paid for much of his collection. Acquisitions became less frequent and more considered, aiming at filling gaps he had long intended to buy rather than striking out into new territory. Books continued to come in, but at a far slower pace. Indeed, Frank never stopped collecting, buying books up to the last year of his life, even after he had essentially taken the decision to part with the collection in his lifetime. When he decided to sell, he had two important reasons. First, he did not want the disposition of the collection to be a burden on his family and wanted to resolve it while he was present to organize it. Secondly, he wanted to be present at the event. With Nebenzahl and Hill as his agents, he worked out all of the details of the sale exactly as he wanted it, including the date, and took part in discussions with the auction houses. Ultimately it was determined to auction the books via Christie’s. Alas, on the very day the collection was picked up by the auction house, he died after a brief illness.
The sale was set for April 16-17, 2007, the two days prior to the New York Book Fair, when many of the major dealers and collectors would already be in New York. Christie’s did an exemplary job of preparing the catalogue, in two stout volumes, which provide superb documentation of the books Frank collected. In the modern mode of auction catalogue they describe the physical appearance of the books and the nature of their contents in exhaustive detail. Unlike the Thomas Streeter sale or other more recent major Americana sales, which were arranged topically, it was decided to use a strictly alphabetical order. The 552 lots were sold in three sessions, the first on the evening of the 16th, and the second and third during the day of the 17th.
The pre-sale buzz, not surprisingly, was quite strong. Frank’s collection was the most important of its kind since the Frank Siebert sale in 1999, and no copies of some of the books had been seen on the market since he bought them in the 1970s. There had also been an interesting warm-up for the sale at Sotheby’s London in March, when the travel section of the library of the Earls of Macclesfield had been sold. The Macclesfield session had contained twenty books which also appeared in Frank’s collection, including a Dudley atlas, a set of Purchas, and a copy of the English Gonzalez de Mendoza. This sale, despite condition issues on some of the books, was remarkably strong. Most of the same players would reassemble in New York the next month, and the prices paid in March made some of the Streeter estimates look laughably low.
Modern sale rooms cannot match the romance, or the information gathering potential, of the auctions of yesteryear. At the time of the Thomas Streeter sale the bidders had no choice but to assemble in one room and be seen, unless they bid through an agent. It was thus relatively easy to track the buyers – in fact the auctioneer generally called out the names of well-known dealers. London houses went even further and published the names of the buyers in the auction results. Most bidding was through dealers. Modern auctions are not inclined to provide free advertising to dealers, and only the bidder’s paddle number is announced. Nonetheless, an informed observer can quickly see who is attached to a paddle in the room, and may well fathom which dealer represents a certain collector. The prevalence of telephone bidding, and now internet bidding, makes it far more difficult to understand who the unseen buyers are, and private bidders often stay anonymous by staying out of the sale room. Some sales end up with a handful of participants in the room and most of the action on the phone.
In this regard Frank’s sale was at least a partial return to old times; it was dominated by dealers, largely bidding for clients, and for the most part actually present in the sale room. This made it far more observable as it evolved into the slugging match it became. Perhaps a hundred people were present on the opening evening, including most of the leading dealers in the field and a number of well-known collectors, as well as members of the Streeter family and a number of Grolier Club friends such as Helmut Friedlaender (who, though over 90, was a consistent bidder). After several small opening lots, lot 3, Thomas Addison, Arithmeticall Navigation… (London, 1625), set the tone for what was to follow. The first English book to explain navigational problems by logarithmic tables, Frank had purchased it at the Horblit sale, and no copy had appeared since; it soared past the estimate (Horblit sale 13, $11520, FSS sale 3, $78,000 to Harrington). Through the vagaries of the alphabet the opening session contained far fewer major books then the next day, but when the 1619 and 1632 Champlain volumes both set records, the strength of the sale was clear (FSS sale 100, $84,000 to Sourget, and 101, $264,000 to Block). The capstone of the evening was The Atlantic Neptune, which Christie’s had carefully planned to be almost the final lot of the evening. Everybody went home with much to reflect on.
The next morning the second session opened with a rousing run through the Dobbs-Middleton pamphlets, all selling for four to six times the high estimate, followed by an epic duel over the Horblit copy of Dudley, which sold for twice what the Macclesfield copy had brought the previous month. With the Horblit Enciso shortly after this, the sale achieved a momentum it never lost, and even quite regular books began to achieve record prices, in some cases going for multiples of the asking price of better copies offered on-line. These minor books aside, most of the major rarities achieved spectacular prices. When the first edition of Richard Hakluyt, The Principall Navigations… (London, 1589), a book which had never approached six figures at auction, sold for eight times the estimate, even the hardened veterans gasped (FSS sale 243, Reese vs. Lan and sold to the latter for $456,000). The run of pamphlets on John Harrison and the chronometer closed out the morning with a breathtaking run, one rare pamphlet clearly undervalued at its $3000/4000 estimate selling for $96,000 (FSS sale 251, to Block).
After a lunch break in which further adjustment of thinking occurred, action resumed with Frank’s run of works of Kepler, then soared with Mark Lescarbot, Nova Francia… (London, 1609), the first English edition of the classic accounts of New France (FSS sale lot 322, $144,000 to Reese) and the Lewis and Clark. With all of the Pacific voyages performing very solidly, perhaps the most exciting moment of the sale came with the 1555 Martyr from Penrose, generally considered by the cognoscenti to be the best book in Frank’s collection. After a long duel between Quaritch and Reese the latter finally prevailed, although Quaritch later won a similar round against Reese over the beautiful set of Purchas (FSS sale 426, $576,000 to Quaritch). The final major book, appropriately, was Frank’s beloved copy of Warre. It, too, set an auction record (FSS sale lot 524, $192,000 to a phone bidder).
The Duke of Wellington famously said that the history of a battle was like the history of a ball, because each participant came away with a unique set of impressions depending on where they had been while it went on. The same is certainly true of auctions, and the more one knows of the material being sold and the persons bidding, the more complex those impressions become. It is impossible to convey, in less than an entire book, the thickness of information (to borrow a phrase from modern anthropology) available to the trained observer, and I necessarily abbreviate my saleroom notes. One did not need any training, however, to see that the sale of Frank’s books was a runaway success. The final total was $16,421,820, with all but eight minor lots sold. The only thing missing was Frank himself. It was an epic conclusion to a collecting career, one that brought him infinite pleasure in friends, books, and associations.