The De Orbe Novo Collection: Exploration in the New World 1492-1625 – impressive sale results

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From Lot 73: Thomas Scott (c.1580-1626). Vox Populi, Or Newes from Spayne, translated according to the Spanish coppie. Which may serve to forewarn both England and the United Provinces how farre to trust to Spanish pretences. [London: unknown publisher], 1620.

From Lot 73: Thomas Scott (c.1580-1626). Vox Populi, Or Newes from Spayne, translated according to the Spanish coppie. Which may serve to forewarn both England and the United Provinces how farre to trust to Spanish pretences. [London: unknown publisher, 1620.”


Bloomsbury’s sale of the De Orbe Novo Collection: Exploration of the New World 1492-1625 is highly unusual, even unique in the history of a field which is well-populated with eccentrics. Bruce McKinney, the publisher of Americana Exchange, an online repository of book market data, put the collection together between 1992 and 2002, and he is now putting it up for auction. It consists, as he says in an article on Americana Exchange, of “mostly heartwood,” that is, one of the finest contemporary collections of books concerning the exploration of the New World. As he also says, “The sale will be unusual in one respect. Information on source, date purchased and price paid is included. Auctions, in the modern era, are almost always silent on purchase history. This sale will be among the most transparent on record, certainly the most transparent in modern times.” His motivation, he states, is first to leave a monument to himself—nothing unduly immodest in the world of collectors. Each of the books contains a special bookplate designed and printed for Mr. McKinney by E. M. Ginger, bearing the Latin motto, Liceat decernere foro, or “let the market decide.” It also shows a landscape with a city being destroyed by an earthquake, with distraught book-lovers in the foreground, some clutching a beloved volume, as well as the date of the sale. Dispersed around the book-collecting world, it will keep Mr. McKinney’s fame alive for generations to come—although not his name, which is absent from the ex libris. His second reason for holding the sale is “to help settle a roiling market while providing the descriptive and pricing approach I prefer,” that is, low reserves. While many of the lots I shall be discussing here are among the more expensive, quite a few carry estimates below $10,000, $5,000, or even $2000, so that all budgets are provided for.

The catalogue, he says, is an homage to H. P. Kraus’ catalogue No. 185, from which many of titles in the collection were originally purchased. (Extra illustrations are available in the online catalogue. Click “View Online” on the Bloomsbury site.) The very mention of H. P. Kraus brings back happy memories and reminds one of what a gap this inestimable resource has left. But all things must end, including the De Orbe Novo Collection.

The sale begins with two classic works which are not directly related to the New World: Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Perigrinatio in terram sanctam in the second Latin edition, Speyer, 1490 (Lot 1: $70-100,000), and a German edition of the Nuremberg Chonicles, 1493 (Lot 2: $100-150,000), in which the renowned woodcuts of Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff are hand-colored—an impressive curtain-raiser to put the literature of exploration in context.

The first work in the sale to refer directly to the New World is Giuliano Dati’s Secondo Cantare dell’India, Rome, 1494-95, (Lot 3: $50-80,000) that is, as the East Indies, since at that time it was still thought that Columbus had reached the Orient. The woodcuts depicting the fantastic beings that live in these far-off lands are prized in their own right.

The basic contemporary surveys of the Age of Discovery are present, at least in part. Part II of the Latin edition Theodor de Bry’s Great Voyages: Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida americae provincia gallis acciderunt auctore Iacobo le Moyne quae est seconda pars Americae, 1591. (Lot 48: $18-25,000). This relates the sufferings of the unsuccessful Huguenot colonies in Florida. Jacques le Moyne’s important map of Florida, engraved by de Bry for this volume is offered as a separate lot. (Lot 49: $5000-8000). The second, expanded edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages, 1598-1600, keeps up the English side of the story (Lot 56: $10-15,000). The first edition of Samuel Purchas’ continuation of Hakluyt, Purchas his Pilgrimage. London, 1624-26 (Lot 77: $60-80,000) is represented by one of thirty presentation copies printed for its patrons.

Another important lot is Ludovico di Varthema’s Novum itinerarium Aethiopiae, Aegipti utriusque Arabiae, Persidis, Siriae, ac Indiae, intra et extra Gangem, (Lot 7: $40-60,000) one of the great travel adventures, and extremely rare. Varthema set off from Venice for Egypt in 1502. Upon his arrival he adopted Muslim dress and made the pilgrimage to Mecca in this disguise, aided by a gift for languages. He was discovered and spent two months in prison before he escaped. He arrived in India in 1504 and spent the next four years travelling around the subcontinent and observing life closely. In The Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, Burton says of him, “For correctness of observation and readiness … Varthema stands in the foremost rank of the old Oriental travellers. In Arabia and in the Indian archipelago east of Java he is (for Europe and Christendom) a real discoverer. Even where passing over ground traversed by earlier European explorers, his keen intelligence frequently adds valuable original notes on peoples, manners, customs, laws, religions, products, trade, methods of war.”

Johannes Camers’ commentary on C. Julius Solinus Polyistora’s Enarrationes, Vienna, 1520, (Lot 11: $30-50,000) is famous for containing Apianus’ world map, the first printed source to refer to the New World as “America.” McKinney purchased this treasure from his beloved Kraus Catalogue No. 185. Also noteworthy is a rare first edition of all eight of Peter Martyr’s Decades, (Lot 16: $30-50,000) a fundamental source on the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans. In this vein there is also a complete set of Bartolomé de las Casas’ Indian Tracts, or Brevissima relacion de la destruyción de las Indias (Lot 26: $30-50,000). In these he represented the Native Americans as fundamentally human and pleaded for their better treatment by the Spanish conquerors, describing in vivid detail the atrocities they suffered at the hands of Europeans.

There is also Pedro de Medina’s rare and crucially important treatise on compass navigation in a French translation, 1554 (Lot 27: $30-50,000). André Thevet’s Les singularitez de la France Antarctique, autrement nommée Amerique: & de plusieurs Terres & Isles decouvertes de nostre temps, 1558 (Lot 31: ($30-50,000) gives an account of a French expedition to Brazil with the intent of founding a colony. Not only are his descriptions of native customs and beliefs valuable, the woodcuts are among the earliest depictions of the New World, including famous illustrations of the cigar and the buffalo. In fact the sale included two later editions of the same work. Especially interesting is Garcia Lasso de la Vega’s La Florida del Ynca. Historia del Adelantado Hernando de Soto, Gouernador y Capitan General del Reyno de la Florida, Lisbon, 1605 (Lot 58: $25-35,000), an account of Hernando de Soto’s conquest of Florida, notable for its use of eyewitness sources, its literary quality, and the fact that its author was the first native-born American author, the son of a conquistador and an Incan princess.

Martin Frobisher’s ill-fated expedition to find a Northwest Passage is represented by a Latin translation published in Nuremberg, 1580, (Lot 38: $15-20,000), which includes the rare folding woodcut plate of an Eskimo in a kayak, hunting waterfowl with a spear, dog sleds and seal skin tents in the background. A first edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s account of his expedition to Guyana, the famous search for the city of El Dorado, 1596, (Lot 53: $8-12,000) is also included in the sale. The picture wouldn’t be complete without one of the promotional tracts which lured many colonists to Virginia, mostly to their regret, if not destruction. These are rare, however, and McKinney was fortunate to have acquired, Thomas Gray’s “A Good Speed to Virginia,” 1609 (Lot 61: $10-15,000). As the catalogue points out “following Smith’s True Relation (1608) and Johnson’s Nova Britannia (1609), Good Speed to Virginia coincided with the second charter for the Company issued in 1609, under which it became a corporation with Sir Thomas Smith as treasurer. Nine such tracts for “Knights, Merchants and Gentlemen” were printed between 1608 and 1615, to encourage the emigration to Virginia. The present tract is a sermon providing reasons to seek fortune there including overcrowding ‘the lande is too narrow for us…it behooves us to be both prudent and politicke…to imbrace every occasion which hath any probabilitie in it of future hopes.'”

Other important English publications appear later in the sale, namely Ralph Hamor’s A True Discourse of the present estate of Virginia, and the Successe of the affaires there til the 18 of June 1614. Together with a Relation of the Severall English Townes and Fortes. the Christening of Powhatans Daughter and Her Marriage with an English-man, 1615 (Lot 71: $20-30,000) and A description of New England: or the observations, and discoueries, of Captain John Smith (Admirall of that country) in the North of America, in the year of our Lord 1614, London, 1616 (Lot 72: $80-120,000). He Capt. Smith not only refers to the territory formerly known as North Virginia as New England, but sets down the English replacements for native place names which have continued to this day.

Of especially high importance is Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, 1618, and an Engish translation comissioned by Hakluyt, Nova Francia: Or the description of that part of New France, which is one continent with Virginia, 1609 (Lots 63 and 62: $50-80,000). You will have noticed that many of these volumes are translations into Latin and other vernaculars, produced soon after the originals. This obviously shows the keen interest among the colonial nations in the enterprises of their competitors. In fact general interest in the explorations was extremely lively, and it is clear that the explorations were as much a phenomenon in the publishing industry as they were in themselves. Hence the possessor of these volumes is endowed with a very special material relationship with this chain of historical events. In history the immediate record is as significant as the events themselves. The maturity—or, better, adolescence—of the printed book at the time makes the relationship between the deed and the word all the more intimate.

Among the jewels of the collection in terms of rarity and value are the account of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, The World Encompassed, London, 1628, which includes the famous map as well as the book itself (Lot 79: $40-60,000), and three works of Samuel de Champlain, first his Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois… Journal tres-fidele des observations faites es descouvertes de la Nouvelle France… Paris, 1613 (Lot 67: $250-350,000), second, his Voyages et descouvertures faites en la Nouvelle France, depuis l’annee 1615. iusques a la fin de l’annee 1618, Paris, 1619 (Lot 68: $30-50,000), and finally Les Voyages de la Nouvelle France occidentale, dicte Canada, faits par le Sr Champlain Xainctongeois, Capitaine pour le Roy en la Marine du Ponant, & toutes les Descouvertes qu’il a faites en ce pais depuis l’an 1603. Iusques en I’am 1629. Paris, 1632 (Lot 69: $70-100,000). These are the work of a man who, as a trained artist, cartographer, ethnographer, and naturalist, was exceptionally well-suited to record his observations of the New World. The copy of the first publication, unsophisticated, tall, and wide-margined, in a contemporary binding, is one of the finest extant.

Historical interest, intellectual and literary qualities, physical quality and rarity all play a role in this major event, which is as much an experiment in the market as a grasp at fame. In the title to his piece about the sale in Americana Exchange, McKinney declared that “immortality has its price,” but it is by no means clear whether he will be the one to pay it.

The collection sold for a double low estimate $3,500,000 and was a complete sell through with 100% sold by lot and 133% by value.

A world record for a travel book was set when Samuel de Champlain’s Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois… Paris: Chez Jean Berjon, 1613, sold for double the high estimate at $758,000 (premium included). The renowned Siebert copy of this landmark of French Americana and New World Exploration is a work whose importance is perhaps only surpassed by its scarcity. It is a first edition in complete and unsophisticated condition and is a pioneering work in ethnography and the first accurate mapping of the New England coast. The book was purchased by London book dealer Peter Harrington.

The collection of 81 books, documenting the European exploration of the New World, ranks as one of the finest in private hands. Tom Lamb, International Head of Books and Manuscripts at Bloomsbury Auctions said “This tremendously successful sale brought together an international gathering of collectors and their agents competing to secure some of the rarest books on the early history of the Americas. Clients came to Bloomsbury Auctions’ New York saleroom from France, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the Americas intent on acquiring these rare works. We were delighted with the results, which are a testament to the collecting acumen of Bruce McKinney.”

Lot 26. Bartolomé de Las Casas, Bishop of Chiapa (1484-1566). A complete set of the Indian tracts.
Realized $134,200 Lot 69. Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635)
Les Voyages de la Nouvelle France occidentale, dicte Canada… 
Paris: chez Louis Sevestre, 1632
Realized $195,000

Another volume from Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), Lot 69, Les Voyages de la Nouvelle France occidentale, dicte Canada faits par le Sr Champlain, dated 1629 and containing 3 parts in one volume with the rare double sheet engraved map, realized $196,200 (presale estimate $70,000-100,000). Lot 2, the Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten, a first edition and the most extensive illustrated book of the 15th century and fully colored, sold for $183,000 (presale estimate $100,000-150,000). Lot 50, Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1633) Itinerario, Voyage ofte Schipvaert naer oost ofte Portugaels Indien. sold for $146,000, (presale estimate $100,000-150,000). This richly illustrated travel guide was held in such high esteem that, for nearly a century, copies were given to all ships sailing to India from Portugal. A complete set of Las Casas’ Indian Tracts, a great rarity, 8 parts in 2 volumes, sold for $134,200 (presale estimate $30,000-50,000).

Richard Austin, Director of Bloomsbury Auctions, New York says “Our approach to the presentation of this collection and the wonderful books it contained encouraged the reappearance of established collectors and brought new collectors to the marketplace. Great books brought strong prices and the magnificent copy of Champlain’s Les Voyages, one of the most important travel books of the 17th century, brought a world record.”

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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