All's well that ends well
d'Este Duplessis: it all worked out
By Bruce McKinney
Jeffrey Thomas, the San Francisco rare book dealer passed away in the late spring of 2007. One portion of his books was consigned to old friends John Crichton and John Windle, both ABAA dealers. Another part was consigned to Pacific Book Auctions. All books have their histories, one of them that was sent to auction, a story that would take two years to resolve. In the end it would reflect well on everyone, the experience telling us more about people than it would about the volume itself. It would confirm both Jeffrey's faith in his friends and his plan to send material to PBA. Here is the story.
Eight years ago d'Este du Plessis, a South African by birth and San Franciscan by adoption, contacted Jeffrey about a book she wanted to sell. It was an early German Bible printed in 1569, not a Gutenberg mind you but old enough to have value. Jeffrey did not consider it significant, probably because the title page was lacking, but agreed he would price and place it on the shelves of his open shop. It was priced at $350. "When it sells I'll be in touch." That was in 2002.
Here is the book:
Biblia: Dat ys: De Gantze Hillige Schrifft. . , 305, 217, 149,  ff. Printed in Wittemberch, 1569. Lacking general title and final two text leaves. Woodcut illustrations and initial letters throughout. (Folio) 13 1/4x8 1/4, period blindstamped vellum over wood boards, metal corners and clasp remnants. A reprint of the Magdeburg Bible of 1545
Four years later, in 2006, d'Este contacted Jeffrey to arrange to get it back. Just that year he had closed his shop at tony 49 Geary and retired with his inventory to the home in the Marina district he shared with his wife Evelyne. He explained to d'Este he would have to find the book as it wasn't in any obvious place. What with packing, moving and unpacking many things formerly easy to find were now lost to view. He would look but it would take time. As luck would have it though he was diagnosed with irreversible cancer the same summer and his health soon declined. It was a serious illness that required all of his attention. His book business, such as it was, already reduced by his shift from retail to internet sales from home, slowed to a stop. In the eleven months from diagnosis to death he never located d'Este's book. In the spring of 2007 I interviewed him for an article. He had a great sense of perspective on collecting and was nostalgic in describing life but just beneath the surface he was struggling to maintain an everyday sense of normalcy. Two years later, when d'Este contacted me, I remembered our conversation at his house and believe that books had already faded in importance for him. His wife was also unwell and he was trying hard to be strong for both of them; the books that lined his shelves already merely a backdrop to unfolding personal drama. He died on May 31st.
All's well that ends well
Jeffrey Thomas in January 2007
In the aftermath he was mourned by many and eulogized before several hundred friends at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. Subsequently his inventory was divided: some sent to long time dealer friends to sell on consignment, others selected by George Fox, to sell at auction. A long time friend Mr. Fox, the rainmaker at PBA, would organize the auctions. d'Este's book went to PBA and was sold at auction in February 2008, ultimately bringing almost ten times the $350 d'Este expected.
But she knew nothing of this. She was still expecting a call when Jeffrey located the book. When she called for an update in the spring of 2009 she found the business phone disconnected. When she then looked on line she found Jeffrey's website and notice of his death. A link to an in memoriam piece I wrote in June 2007 led her to contact me and I agreed to look into the matter.
The first thing I did was check the lot descriptions in the February 2008 Thomas Sale at PBA and the book she described was there. I then asked her to search her records for anything she had from Jeffrey to confirm the book sold was her father's and had been consigned. She remembered receiving a casually written receipt but had no idea where it might be and it was never found.
Calls to John Windle and John Crichton confirmed that several other people had noticed their material in the PBA listings of Thomas material and called to identify themselves as the actual owners. For d'Este however the sale was over and her father's book long since delivered to the new owner. But it was now established that some of Jeffrey's material was consigned but not recorded.
Identifying the book as hers would be difficult. Often it's a serious mistake to write your name in a book. In this case, her father's signature, written in or about 1937, would be the link she would rely upon to confirm that the copy at auction was her father's copy. There was no other evidence of the connection. There was of course also the issue of whether Jeffrey might have purchased the book outright. That, it turned out, could be determined by what Jeffrey wrote in pencil in the books he owned or on the slip he put into each book consigned. A book that was consigned identified the source, books he owned identified his cost in code. I couldn't know it then but the slip with Jeffrey's notes for d'Este's Bible had probably been casually tossed away when the books were gussied up for auction. But neither were there Jeffrey's telltale notes, always written in the book in pencil, when he owned the copy.
I then contacted George Fox of PBA and he agreed to look into it. Could he contact the buyer and ask them to look for the dated signature of Nap or Napoleon du Plessis on the inside front cover? In time George Fox confirmed with the buyer both that this signature was in the book and that there were no other handwritten notes, loosely inserted or written in the margin.
All's well that ends well
George Fox of PBA
d'Este then wrote to Evelyne Thomas to make her case for the return of the book or the proceeds from the sale. Mrs. Thomas, after contacting Mr. Fox to confirm the facts, agreed to send her the proceeds and asked George to confirm the net amount she received. In February d'Este found a letter in her mailbox from Evelyne along with a check for $2,475.
Ultimately it all came down to honesty. Mr. Fox could simply have reported that the buyer didn't find Mr. du Plessis' signature. The buyer could have, for his own reasons, ended all discussion with an "I don't see it," an "I can't find it" or "I sold it." Mrs. Thomas could easily have taken the lawyerly position of "show me your receipt." But no one took a short cut and ultimately all honored Jeffrey Thomas' approach to honesty. He once told me he couldn't lie because he couldn't keep the stories straight. It got him through life and it continues to work for him today.
As for PBA Galleries this case is a rare opportunity to see how people act when their actions are all but invisible. They did the right thing and are deserving of high praise.