Now, there are two large collections of rare books related to the early exploration of northwestern America coming to auction, a major event in the modern world of antiquarian books. Many dealers and individual collectors are positioning themselves to be the successful bidders. The centerpiece of the auctions is a heretofore unknown, astonishing copy of the journals of George Vancouver printed over two hundred years ago. How much will it sell for? Is this, in some way, a vindication of Vancouver, maybe even his vengeance?
The emergence of the special copy of Vancouver's journals causes President Ray Cartwright to re-examine the unique Sir Francis Drake document he bought years ago. Is it really legitimate? How can he find out? What should he do if it's a fake?
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By Barry Deane Stewart
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 Barry Deane Stewart
All rights reserved.
The First Auction
New York Times Weekend Book Section, January 3rd On December 27th
Mr. Reginald Cushing of Los Angeles, California, passed away peacefully due to natural causes at the age of 88.
Mr. Cushing, Reggie to his friends, was the original proprietor of Knib and Kwill, a legendary antiquarian bookstore located in Hollywood. That enterprise was sold to Mr. Thaddeus Thomas a few years ago and is now operated by his daughter, Ms. Margaret Thomas.
For more than fifty years, Mr. Cushing was a leading figure in the rare-book collecting world, promoting the preservation of historically significant books and documents. He was a past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, both of which have issued testimonials to him and have offered condolences to his family.
Mr. Cushing had an extensive personal collection of outstanding books and maps related to the history of the exploration of western and northern America. His family has announced that the collection will be sold by auction later this year, once it has been properly catalogued. Details will be provided later.
Hadrian Wall was sitting in his home library, looking out across the panoramic view below his home on the hillside of West Vancouver. He was contemplating a phone call he had just received from Chester Chalk, an independent dealer in rare books who had been a key advisor and supplier to Hadrian over the past ten years.
His view was spectacular. Looking down across the yacht club and ship docks on the Burrard Inlet, the long, suspended arch of the Lions Gate Bridge, and the extensive rainforest canopy of Stanley Park, Hadrian could see the impressive skyline of downtown Vancouver. Farther away, on the horizon, were the mountain peaks of the Coastal Range, dominated by the snow-capped Mount Baker in Washington. The open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leading to the Pacific Ocean, fanned out to the southwest, populated with large international freighters, gleaming cruise ships, bustling ferries, and many diverse pleasure craft, all sharing the sun-drenched expanse.
Now in his early sixties, Hadrian was very comfortable. Of medium height with slightly graying temples, he kept himself in good shape. Although he would almost always wear business suits when he went out in public, he was equally at ease in jeans when relaxing at home.
Hadrian was a semi-retired mining consultant who had been very successful over his career in identifying areas with valuable mineral deposits and parlaying that information into substantial front-end payments and ongoing royalties from large mining companies. He continued to dabble in exploration analyses and to sit on business advisory boards at some of those companies.
Looking out from his library, he could see the outline of the campus of the University of British Columbia, high up on the cliffs of Point Grey, across the intervening English Bay. He had graduated with a geology degree, followed by an MBA, from UBC some four decades ago.
After a few years working for a coal mining company in the interior mountains of British Columbia, he had ventured out on his own. He formed a loose alliance with three other independent geologists and they scoured the province for new mineral opportunities, tapping in to every information source they could find and chasing every promising lead they could define. Usually it was a dead end.
It also presented a very delicate set of relationships with his associates. They were independent entrepreneurs, both cooperating and competing at the same time. There are few situations in the world that can lead to bad feelings, lost friendships, angry lawsuits, and even mayhem and murder than those involving explorationists who believe they have been cheated out of a big discovery. Ambiguity was the source of most disputes.
Thankfully, he had never had a problem with his associates. They maintained open and cordial relationships and they were always explicit with each other as to who was in and who was out of a particular venture.
For a couple of decades they made a decent living, identifying and capitalizing on leads for coal, copper, zinc, and a few other related minerals.
Hadrian's path to financial success came in the late 1980s when he heard stories about geologists starting to believe that there could be geological formations that housed kimberlitic deposits in the northern territories of Canada. Kimberlite is the volcanic rock type that often contains diamonds. It is sourced very deep in the earth's crust, 200 miles or more down, and is usually released to the surface in narrow, carrot-shaped, pipe-like fissures that allow for rapid release of pressure and temperature. They are difficult to discover because of their relatively small size in large regions of volcanic deposits. Their potential presence can be signaled by the presence of trace amounts of associated compounds containing chromium, potassium, and magnesium.
At the time, the major sources of diamonds were in Africa, Australia, and the former Soviet Union. There was a lot of skepticism in the established mining companies, and by experienced exploration geologists as well, about the potential for diamonds in northern Canada. Hadrian was more open-minded.
Although he did not make the initial discovery of diamonds, he had worked the region very thoroughly and he had identified specific areas of potential mineralization. Once diamond discoveries had been confirmed, the rush was on to stake out claims across the Canadian Shield, the hard-rock region that stretches from northern Quebec and Ontario, across Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and into Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Hadrian approached world-scale mining companies with his information and secured large finder's fees and ongoing royalty payments. He did not need to raise large amounts of capital or organize large operations, which were not his areas of expertise. Such ambitions often led to the failure of explorationists who made a discovery, but who could not manage the follow-up.
Canada's first diamond mine opened in 1999, and by 2003 Canada was the third-largest supplier in the world, after Botswana and Russia. Today Canada produces twenty-five percent of the world's diamonds.
Even during his earliest years exploring for minerals, Hadrian became interested in the history of mining. He read many history books about the early discoveries and the mining technologies that developed over time. He started a modest collection of early books on the subject.
For explorers and miners everywhere over the centuries, gold has always had its special allure. In 1896 gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory of Canada. This is the story of legends—miners climbing the snow-filled cliffs of the Chilkoot Pass, the RCMP policing the wild mining camps and preserving the Canadian ownership of the region, and the Robert Service classics The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. The story of the region was best captured in the book Klondike by Pierre Berton, who was born in the Yukon and became Canada's most famous historian with over fifty very readable publications.
When Hadrian became involved with the search for diamonds in the north, he read Berton's book and then his later classic Arctic Grail, which describes the historic search for a northwest passage across the top of North America and the early explorers' attempts to be the first to reach the North Pole. The stories of their epic voyages, extreme hardships, and satisfying successes fascinated him. He then began to collect the early publications associated with those Arctic explorers. Over time, his interests expanded to include the exploration and discovery of the whole northwest of America.
Hadrian now had quite a comprehensive collection of old books and maps related to the subject. He had developed a network of contacts in the booksellers' world, was on many international mailing lists, and attended many antiquarian book fairs.
Chester Chalk had become one of his main sources of books and information. Chester lived in Vancouver and was an independent broker. He had worked in the book business for a number of years, originally in association with other sellers as a researcher, verifier, and sales representative. Now, he specialized in finding and reselling special volumes related to maritime exploration by maintaining an extensive network of suppliers and customers.
Chester was very different from Hadrian. A large man in his early forties, he tended to dress casually and was quite outgoing in discussions with others, whereas Hadrian was quiet-spoken, a man of few words who was precise in speech.
Hadrian and Chester got along well. Hadrian trusted Chester's advice and Chester gave him priority access to special finds. Part of their connection was that they both had a nickname that was unusual—one that close friends used and was sometimes used quietly by others, but which did not pass the test of being used easily by casual acquaintances.
Hadrian was called Stone by his friends. It had developed in university based on the fact that he was studying geology and that he was kidded by his friends that his mother had named him after a stone wall in Scotland. Thus he was often called Stone Wall. His wife stayed with Hadrian.
Chester Chalk had been called Cheese by his friends since high school days, a play on the old saying "as different as chalk and cheese." It didn't have any real meaning; it was just one of those things that happen between friends.
Hadrian was contemplating the call he had just received from Chester. The famous collection of books related to maritime history owned by Reggie Cushing was going to auction.
They needed a plan of action.
Jeremy Boucher was in his Antiquarian Americana shop on High Street, near Ohio State University in Columbus. January was always a slow time, after the busy pre-Christmas rush of December when buyers seemed to be keen on adding to their collections and the gift-giving nature of the season kicked in. Now, in the gray and gloomy winter season, it was time to take stock and to plan his book purchasing ventures of the next few months.
He was reading the announcement of the upcoming sale of Reggie Cushing's collection of antiquarian books and maps.
Jeremy had a thriving business in the purchase and sale of antiquarian books related to American history. Although his main focus was on the history of eastern America and the Civil War, he had expanded to more western America items in recent years. He regularly attended the antiquarian book fairs in California and Seattle, and he had developed a reasonable base of customers who were interested in items related to that region.
Jeremy's specialty was in items of high quality. He was almost fanatical about the condition of old books, their absolute originality and completeness, and any special provenance of previous ownership. Other booksellers often laughed behind his back about his obsession with quality, but, on the other hand, his customers knew they were always getting the best, even if it was at a premium price.
Jeremy was always well-dressed and immaculately groomed. Tall and slim, in his early fifties, he spoke softly in serious tones. His appearance was totally consistent with his character and reputation.
Jeremy knew that Reginald Cushing's collection was of the highest quality; he had often interacted with Reggie at book fairs and industry association events.
However, he also knew that everyone in the antiquarian-book-collecting world knew the same thing. How could he find an opportunity at the auction, which was undoubtedly not going to occur until the fall, given the auction house's task of collating the collection, preparing an appropriate sales catalogue, and building market expectations?
Jeremy could think of a number of approaches, some of which were not in conflict with each other and some of which would create significant conflicts of interest. He also knew that others would be considering the exact same options.
First, he could simply bid for specific items for his own account, adding to his inventory and hoping to re-sell the items within a reasonable time at a profit. Although this was his traditional approach to auctions, this time it was a high-risk approach with limited chance of real value creation. This particular auction was going to attract everyone's attention—the big dealers and the serious collectors alike. His only hope with this strategy would be to be able to recognize some items of exceptional value because of their quality, rarity, or special provenance. Because of his expertise, this strategy was possible for an item or two, but it was not likely to create many opportunities.
The second approach would be to identify individuals within his customer network who would be interested in some of the items in the auction, to work with them on an auction strategy, and to actually carry out the bidding process for them, for a fee of course. This was a common practice for the many auctions in London, New York, and a few other major centers. Collectors, even high-value ones, did not usually have the time or willingness to monitor the many auctions to find a specific item of interest. That's where the experience and the network of contacts for a world-class dealer like Jeremy came into play.
The inherent problem with this second strategy as related to a big event such as the Cushing auction was to avoid creating conflicts of interest. He could not be bidding on something for more than one person, let alone be considering buying for himself at the same time. However, if he was pursuing this strategy with a number of buyers, which was the best way to have multiple profit opportunities, how could he avoid having more than one of his clients interested in the same item?
The third approach was to form an alliance with another quality bookseller or two. This was normal in the industry when items of high value were involved. It shared the cost, and therefore the risk. It also expanded the reach to potential customers if you associated with dealers who had a different network. Obviously, it also served to reduce the competition at the auction. For Jeremy, the problem was that he did not have such an established relationship with other appropriate dealers; he was a bit of an outsider in those circles. However, he knew very well that others would be doing just that.
There was a fourth approach. It was based on history and opportunity, but it was unproven to him.
In 2007, when the now-famous Streeter collection of antiquarian books related to maritime exploration was auctioned in New York, everyone was surprised by the price levels that were reached. Over three sessions, 550 books were sold for a total value of over $16 million. The pre-sale estimates had ranged from $5 million to $7 million, even allowing for the quality of the collection and the booming financial markets of the time.
The three sessions of the auction were held at 6:00 p.m. on a Monday and at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday. The lots were auctioned at a rate of slightly more than one minute each! The individual items sold for an average price of $30,000 compared to an estimate of $10,000. Thirty-five books sold for over $100,000 and four sold for over $500,000. Everyone was shocked.
The sale catalogue had listed the books alphabetically. The very first item to be auctioned was an English translation of a relatively obscure treatise on the West Indies by a Spanish missionary named Acosta, printed in 1604. Its pre-sale price was estimated by Christie's at $3,000 to $4,000. It sold for over $15,000. The tone of the sale was set! By the end of the first evening session, 150 books had sold for almost $4 million, more than twice the estimate.
In 2007, although information on the internet at sales sites such as eBay and Amazon was well established, the antiquarian book world use of it was still in its infancy. Sites such as Abe Books and Book Finder were established and some booksellers were using them, but it was still hit-and-miss. Inside knowledge of who had specific books was still often dependent upon relationships, book fair connections, and scouting.
In reality, only a limited number of the high-end dealers and a random selection of other dealers and collectors were at the Streeter Sale. Thus, there was a significant market discontinuity of information about the emerging prices within the world of antiquarian booksellers for a day or two.
Dealers, particularly those that belong to the established professional associations such as the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), have an understanding that members will sell books to each other at a 10 to 20 percent discount from their asking retail price.
This practice is more than a professional courtesy. The market for expensive, rare books is not a liquid one—inventory turnover can be slow. It has been said by the insiders many times, "A $100,000 book only exists if there is a $100,000 customer." Thus booksellers covet their relationships with collectors. They look for opportunities to buy a book at 80 or 90 percent of retail value from another dealer and then turn it over relatively quickly to a customer they know is in the market for the item.
Excerpted from Vancouver's Vengeance by Barry Deane Stewart. Copyright © 2013 Barry Deane Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Historical Event.................... xv
Book One The First Auction.................... 1
Book Two The Second Auction.................... 91
Book Three The Pursuit.................... 161
Author's Notes and Acknowledgements.................... 207