William Reese Revisits The Streeter Sale
The Streeter Sale Revisited from William Reese.
By Michael Stillman
Catalogue number 257 from the William Reese Company is a must for all major collectors of Americana: The Streeter Sale Revisited. Thomas Streeter was likely the most important collector of printed Americana of the 20th century. Streeter was first a lawyer, then very successful businessman and financier. He began seriously collecting books in the 1920s, and evidently this became the love of his life. He retired in 1939, at the age of just 56, to devote the remainder of his life to book collecting. This he did virtually until its end in 1965.
Streeter collected a great deal of early Americana, but had a special interest in Texas. He published a bibliography based on his collection, donated numerous documents to the University of Texas, and sold his Texas collection in its entirety to Yale University. He made numerous donations to other institutions and served on the boards of, or in other capacities with, many libraries and historical organizations. However, he also wanted to make much of what he had gathered available to the next generation of collectors, so he decided to have some 5,000 of his books put up for auction after he died. The result was the Streeter Sale, probably the most important Americana auction of the last century.
The sale was held at Parke-Bernet Galleries, then New York's largest auction house. The sale began in 1966, and did not conclude until 1969, 23 sessions later. A total of 4,421 of his best items were offered at the auctions, bringing in a total of just over $3.1 million, a record for a book auction in the U.S. at the time. A number of factors helped to make the auction so successful, including the great respect Streeter had developed, making his copies very desirable, and the fact that Streeter gave institutions $400,000 to be used exclusively at his auction. Despite the seemingly generous prices often paid at the time, most of the purchases made at his auction have proven to be a bargain, even taking into account inflation since that time. As the rich get richer, the best get better, and Streeter's collection was the best.
William Reese has owned many items that came from Streeter's collection over the years, and has owned even more other copies of books Streeter once possessed. Currently, he is offering 311 items that are the same or similar to items sold at the Streeter sale, including 18 books owned by Streeter himself. In this catalogue, he looks back at Streeter's sale and gives us the prices from that auction, and in most cases is able to tell us to whom the Streeter copy was sold. In some cases, Reese is also able to compare prices with those sold at the auction of Streeter's son, Frank. Frank Streeter died this past year and his collection, while not on a level with that of his father, was nonetheless an important one, and he had many items that once belonged to Thomas. Reese notes that items sold at the son's auction for roughly 26 times the price at his father's, and that prices in this catalogue average around 28 times the prices at the Streeter sale. Some are only a few times as much, though a few are priced well beyond the 28 times average.
We note that our own findings indicate that this is about double the rate of increase as seen for the typical book since the late 1960s. Again, the best material, though seemingly very expensive at the time, usually increases at a more rapid rate than does average material. The Streeter collection confirms this. For comparison, Reese notes the overall inflation rate since that time stands at 6, so books have been a good financial investment, whether typical or superior copies, along with bringing great pleasure to those collect them.
William Reese Revisits The Streeter Sale
We will mention a couple of the titles Reese is offering. Item 32 is interesting both for its story and its provenance. It is the Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs, by, naturally, Stephen Burroughs, and includes the rare second volume. Published in 1798 and 1804, it recounts the biography of a rogue who later in life settled down to become a Catholic teacher. Before seeing the light, Burroughs was a difficult child, ran away at 14, joined the army and deserted, went to sea with a privateer by impersonating a physician, impersonated a minister, became a counterfeiter, was sent to jail, set fire to the prison in an escape attempt, was sent to a second prison from which he escaped but was recaptured, and after serving out his term, moved to Canada and joined a counterfeiting ring. Streeter called his book, "one of the great criminal autobiographies..." The provenance for this copy is that it belonged to both Streeters, having sold at the first Streeter sale for $375. Priced at $7,500.
Item 189 is the earliest obtainable printing of the Gettysburg Address. This is the first report of the address in book form, preceded only by newspaper reports and a single pamphlet known to exist in just three copies. The title is An Oration Delivered on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, but the author is not who you believe. Rather, it is attributed to Edward Everett, a Massachusetts Senator and one of the greatest orators of his day. That was only fair, as 29 pages of the book are devoted to Everett's long (1 1/2-2 hours) and forgotten speech. Lincoln's brief remarks took up only half of page 40, yet contrary to the President's prediction, his words were long remembered. Sold for $400 at the Streeter sale. $27,500.
Item 92 is an important work on what was the West in 1784, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke...by John Filson. This may be the best description of the American frontier, that land south of the Ohio and west of the Alleghenies, at the close of the American Revolution. This book introduced Americans to the quintessential frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Sold at the Streeter sale for $1,100. $30,000.
Item 84 is one of Streeter's few works that take us into modern times: Two Thousand Miles on an Automobile...Trip through New England, New York, Canada, and the West. In 1902, the "West," at least as far as roads were concerned, was Ohio. This is generally considered the first account of an automobile trip in the U.S., and road conditions were even worse than today, though traffic was lighter. The anonymous work is now attributed to Arthur J. Eddy. It is not as uncommon as believed at the time of the Streeter sale, so it has seen one of the smallest of appreciations. Sold for $100 at Streeter. $350.
The William Reese Company may be visited online at www.reeseco.com, telephone 203-789-8081.