Kee O Kuck, The Watching Fox, chief of the Sauk tribe
Kee O Kuck
The Watching Fox, chief of the Sauk tribe

Acquiring the Nine-Millionth Book

Anthony Bliss
Curator, Rare Books Collection
The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Some people are born to shop. Bancroft curators are paid to shop. To some, this might be a definition of Nirvana, but there are serious responsibilities involved. As an observer of shopping behavior, it has struck me that when you go looking for a specific item with specific characteristics, you rarely find it. On the other hand, when you do not know quite what you want, temptation is everywhere.

In mid-1999, the word spread throughout the Berkeley Libraries that we would soon reach the nine-million volume mark and a request for proposals was broadcast. An invitation like this piques the curatorial imagination, and it wasnít long before Theresa Salazar, the Curator of the Bancroft Collection, spotted an item in a catalogue and got enthusiastic support from Jack von Euw, Bancroftís pictorial curator. They showed me the listing and I shared their enthusiasm. Before long, the suggestion had reached the top levels of the Library and found a solid endorsement.

Our research into the history of the unfortunate Mr. Lewis and his work led us to believe that his Aboriginal Port Folio would be an ideal nine-millionth volume for Berkeley. Bancroft already had a fine set of Thomas McKenney and James Hall's The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, as well as the two other great colorplate books on Native Americans, George Catlinís North American Indian Portfolio of 1844 and the account of Prince Maximillianís travels on the plains with illustrations by Bodmer (1839-41).

The only problem was that the item was for sale at auction in New York City. We couldnít see it and we didnít know how much it would sell for. On top of that, there were two variant copies of the same item being offered, one estimated at more than twice the price of the other. How to decide? I telephoned one of our favorite New York antiquarian book dealers and he agreed to represent UC Berkeley at the October 28 auction sale.

Buying books at a major international auction can be complicated. It is not a good idea to do ones own bidding: only the dealers fully understand the competition and the dynamics of the sale. The dealerís 10% commission is well earned through advice, counsel, shipping arrangements, and flexible payment schedules.

Our agent went to the auction rooms to inspect both copies of the Lewis Port Folio that were being offered and called me back with his report. The first copy contained all 80 plates, had its title page, and the original wrappers for the first three parts (all that were issued). The Sothebys estimate was $40,000-$60,000.

The other copy had 72 plates (lacking the rare tenth part) and no title page; the price was estimated at $15,000-$20,000. There were damaged plates in both copies: six in the first, three in the second. Their bindings were roughly similar in design and condition.

Kaa Nun Der Waaguinse Zoo, The Berry Picker, a famous Chippewa chief
Kaa Nun Der Waaguinse Zoo
The Berry Picker, a famous Chippewa chief

This much we already knew from the printed description, but our agentís analysis was telling: on inspection, he found that the 80-plate copy was generally in poorer condition than the other one. Its paper was spotted and browned, and the coloring of the plates was not as well executed as the 72-plate copy.

Armed with this information, we had a curatorial caucus and decided that with our limited funding and for the purposes of Berkeleyís collection, the 72-plate copy would very well serve our needs. We found no justification for paying a steep premium for the more complete copy and running the risk of losing it entirely in what promised to be a hotly contested auction. Our strategy then was to put in the strongest bid we could for the second copy to give ourselves the best chance of success. Our mission was to acquire the nine-millionth book: failure was not an option.

The next step was to determine what our bid should be. I got back on the phone with our agent, and we discussed the results of the first part of this sale, the likely competition, the attendance, the interest shown at the preliminary viewing, and our estimates of the strength of the current rare book market. The estimate of $15,000-$25,000 was obviously set low so that potential bidders would not be frightened off.

Waa Na Taa, The Foremost in Battle, chief of the Sioux tribe
Waa Na Taa
The Foremost in Battle, chief of the Sioux tribe

My own rule of thumb, developed over the years, is that if you really, really want an item, you should be prepared to pay at least triple the high estimate. In this case, the agent and I both felt that a bid of $75,000 might not be enough. Prices had been very strong in the first part of the sale (held five months earlier) and there were no significant changes in the economic situation to suggest that prices would drop.

We agreed that a successful bid would have to be significantly over $75,000. Working with the Librarianís Office and the Library Development Office, we determined just how high we could go. The next step was to wait for The Phone Call on Thursday afternoon, October 28, 1999. Imagine then our joy on learning that that copy we bid on was knocked down to our agent for a mere $74,000! It was not a steal, but we were much relieved that the price didnít go as high as we feared. It almost looked like a bargain. The 80-plate copy sold for $145,500, more than we could have paid.

The next wait was for the package to arrive from New York. After all, none of us had ever actually seen this item. When it arrived a few days later, wonderfully packed and fully insured, we looked it over in great detail, comparing what we saw with the auction house description and our agentís report.

My first reaction was that either Lewis or the lithographer was not a great artist. The details in the plates—costumes, ornament, weapons—were wonderful, but the portrayal of the figures did seem crude (perhaps Iíd seen too much of McKenney and Hall). Despite this quibble, there is something fascinating about these images. They are not overworked and romanticized, they project a sense of immediacy that is almost unnerving.

We were all very pleased with the Port Folio, but it clearly needed conservation work. We consulted with Gillian Boal and Nancy Harris in the Libraryís Conservation Laboratory. Gillian would have to deal with repairing the binding and Nancy would have to fix the tears in three plates that had been clumsily mended with adhesive tape, as well as some other less difficult problems. Working together, we laid out a plan of conservation work and a timetable for its completion.

The Aboriginal Port Folio had its first public viewing on Cal Day, April 15th and was very much admired. Its next public appearance was in Fall 2000 when it was prominently featured in the exhibition "Images of Native American Indians" in the Bancroft Gallery. It was presented there in company with McKenney and Hall, Catlin, and Bodmer and a wealth of other depictions of Native Americans.

Bancroftiana, Volume 117, Fall 2000.
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