Some Interesting Items Appear At Auction
Early map shows a small piece of the New World in the left corner.
By Michael Stillman
Some surprising, interesting, and historically important material regularly finds its way to the auction rooms. There is much to be found and learned if you keep your eyes open. Here are a few items that caught our eye as they passed through the rooms recently.
This one has to be included among the surprises, at least for the auction house's estimator. Its significance must have escaped that individual's notice, but it did not slip past the notice of bidders. On February 2, French auction house ALDE held an auction of antiquarian and modern books. All told, there were 477 lots, anticipated to take in something between €224,000 and €291,000 (US $307,000 and 398,000). Among them was an unassuming 14-page pamphlet published anonymously in Strassburg in 1509, with the Latin title, Globus Mundi Declaratio sive descriptio mundi...
It must not have appeared all that significant, but to those who collect Americana, or European Americana, this is a major piece. It contains one of the first maps to display America, albeit a very tiny piece, and it is the first book to unreservedly give this new land the name "America." This is of major significance as it helps define how the New World came to be known as "America," for Amerigo Vespucci, when it really should have been named "Columbia" for Christopher Columbus. He was the "discoverer," preceding Vespucci.
On the lower left edge of the globe-shaped map, west of Africa, is a tiny edge of a continent, labeled as the "new world." Then, in the text, the unknown author compares the world to the human body, writing, "The head is the East or Asia; feet the West and America, newly discovered, fourth part of the globe." Africa and Europe constituted the arms. Just two years earlier, Martin Waldseemuller, in his 1507 map, had made reference to the land as "America," though he may have simply been confused as to its discoverer. When he republished his map a few years later, he removed all reference to "America." However, these early notations determined how we would label the world. So, once a year we honor Columbus by celebrating his day, but every day, millions of times all over the world, we remember Vespucci by uttering his name.
While the significance of this item may have been overlooked at first by the cataloguer, the bidders did not miss it. It was estimated at €4,000-5,000 (US $5,500-6,850), but when the hammer came down, the price all-in was €600,000 (US $821,000). That was 120 to 150 times the estimate, and in fact, was more than double the high estimate for the entire 477-lot auction. Sometimes pleasant surprises do come in small packages.
An auction containing some spectacular manuscript material took place in late January at Sprink Shreve Galleries in New York, a house more often associated with stamps. We write more about this $8 million auction elsewhere in this issue of AE Monthly, but here we will focus on a couple of the items, rather than the auction itself. The collection came from the estate of Floyd E. Risvold, of Edina, Minnesota. Risvold, who traveled the American West in the 1930s and 40s and developed a love for all things Western and American, died last year at the age of 97. He returned to Minnesota where he operated the family clothing distribution business while building his collection. He sold the business when he reached the age of 72, but kept and increased the collection for the remaining 25 years of his life. His collection contained items relating to the early days of the United States, the Civil War, western expansion, Indian treaties, the Pony Express, railroads, Mormons, the fur trade, California Gold Rush, and the Minnesota Territory. His varied collection was driven by a desire to find one or a few key documents on a subject, rather than a wide array of material focused on a small niche.
Some Interesting Items Appear At Auction
Floyd Risvold in 1932.
One of his items was an absolutely fascinating, and telling letter from John Adams to Vice-President Elbridge Gerry. Written in response to Gerry's inquiry about the office, Adams let loose with a tirade. It's interesting, as the letter was written in 1813, after Adams had rekindled his friendship with Jefferson and we thought he had become a bit more mellow.
Adams particularly goes after France, and those who were enamored of its revolution in the early days. He speaks of the French Revolution as "a gigantic Infant begotten by Folly, midwife into the world by Madness, nurtured by Atheism, Deism, and every Species of Vice and Wickedness." An interesting take, since many at the time considered Jefferson a Deist. He claims that Antifederalists labeled him a "MONARCHIST," and then goes on to say of his rivals, "Hamilton, Knox, Jefferson, Madison Duer &c were jealous of too close an Intimacy between Washington and me. We were watched by green Eyed Jealousy on every side." However, he goes on to relay a story where Washington, apparently tilting toward a treaty with the French, takes Adams for a private walk in New York to solicit his views. Adams responds with a lengthy eight-point explanation of why America should not sign a treaty with France. From Washington, all he gets is a brief thanks for his advice and as they walk past a spot, Washington comments, "Here is the place where they peppered Us" (referring to the Battle of Haarlem Heights during the Revolution). Even after all of these years from power, the anger and hurt still burned within Adams, a complicated and conflicted man, a great patriot who made a few terrible errors. His letter sold for $184,100.
Risvold had numerous Mormon-related pieces in his collection, including this letter from Olive Grey Frost to her uncle, Col. Joshua Grey. Frost and most of her immediate family were followers of the Mormon Church, and she was a plural wife to both Joseph Smith and (after he died) Brigham Young. Both marriages were very short, to Smith because he was killed a few months later, and to Young because she died a few months after the marriage at age 28. The letter is written from Nauvoo, Illinois, where the followers lived at the time (March, 1844). Frost is clearly earnest in her beliefs, though she understands her uncle may be skeptical. Writes Frost, "...you will perhaps say that we are all a deluded people and our Prophet a false Prophet. But dear uncle it is not so, this is the work of God... Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. I also sent you a Book of Mormon. A coppy from the records that Joseph Smith found which were hid up by a people who peopled this continant years before it were discovered by Columbus and Christ appeared to this and that Book is a record of that people. We read in palmns that truth should spring out of the Earth &c &c This may seem strong to you but I ashour you it is the truth of heaven." The letter sold for $69,100.