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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sometimes you end up with something that is just "very good" but not stupendous.

What follows is a report from my brilliant partner, Kate Hunter, who is in charge of rare books at Arader Galleries.


She intrepidly chose to take on serious research on a fine example of the 1513 Ptolemy that was purchased on October 8, 1991 at the Pierre S. DuPont sale.   Almost 20 years ago!!!  This is a volume that a number of scholars including Nicholas Barker of the British Library have examined.  The heavy annotations in a 16th century ink and hand clearly speak to a book that was used for extensive research and understanding.


But for twenty years it has been clear that this cornerstone folio needs to be examined by the "final word," the eminent Harvard scholar Owen Gingerich.  His published research on Copernicus is the best book ever written about provenance and the thrill of the chase to determine the owners of his 1543 "De Revolutionibus."


Here is what Kate reports after returning from Boston.  This is a splendid example of the type of research that a true scholar of books undertakes:

"Had a very good visit with Owen Gingerich yesterday.

Spent about two hours with him in all, after a long train ride in which I was able to finish reading his book. I recommend it as an easy and interesting read, a detective story, and full of information about the scientific community at the end of the 15th, early 16th-century. Also full of useful information on printing and publishing techniques of the time.

We looked though the book thoroughly together, page by page.

As we know, the original endpapers and the lower half of the title-page are missing, the most likely places for someone to have left an inscription that would give an indication of early provenance. I explained that the book was bought at the DuPont sale in 1991, and that Brockman had repaired the binding etc., but that the original endpapers and the lower half of the title-page were gone before then.

The copious notes are written by one person, at one time period, using two different pens: one large nibbed for the calligraphic headlines, and one smaller one for the longer notes.

These notes function as a kind of Index: highlighting what is in the text nearby. Since the longer notes (near entries for Nuremberg and Venice for example) are written in a very fluid hand, neither my, nor OG’s Latin is good enough to work out what is written. We suspect that the information is probably historical/factual. I suggest that we find a young keen Latin scholar to transcribe these for us.

We could not find any personal names or dates in the notes, that might help with identification.

However we can say from the style of the hand-writing that the annotator was from Northern Europe, and from the pronounced patina on the maps of Germany and Switzerland, probably from somewhere in these regions.

Because of the years OG has spent working on the Copernicus census, he knows the hand-writing of most of the important scientist scholars of the day, and he was fairly certain that the annotations in this book are not by one of them. His book gives a fairly long list of the likely suspects. While discussing this particular point he mentioned that while handling the Waldseemuller 1507 at the library of Congress, he spotted that a marginal annotation was by Schoener. So I believe him when he says that he knows the hand of most people that we would want the annotations to be by.

As to it being a lesser scholar or teacher, he said the likelihood was slim, since the book would have been so expensive. Therefore the owner was probably a well-educated, landed person, who travelled extensively in Germany and Switzerland.

He showed me the book that he bought from you G: the text of the Flamsteed. It was a good story. I was also allowed to see his copy of the 2nd edition Copernicus annotated by Copernicus’ student Rheticus. And his most recent acquisition: an addition to his collection of Ephemerides, which list the positions of the stars and planets on any given date. His is now the largest collection of such things in the world... and all his books are stuffed on shelves and in two safes in his small office at Harvard. He buys most of his books through Quaritch and with the help of Paul Quarrie through Sotheyb’s. He bought quite a lot of small things at the Macclesfield sales.

I was also shown the original Harvard telescope... which still works!!

He was very generous with his time, and was pleased to see the book. I left him a gift of the newest book about Rumphius’ cabinet of curiosities, as he also collects shells."

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