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[BKARTS] A bitter end for Hub gem
Boston Globe, Op Ed page (D11), Sunday, February 29, 2004
A bitter end for Hub gem
By Nicholas A. Basbanes
ON A DAY when New England was saluting the Patriots on their
thrilling triumph in the Super Bowl, I was on my way to see a single
book at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
My purpose was to pay my respects to the remains of a great rarity
that had become a victim of its own fragile beauty, a book that had
been stripped to the bare bone for its 248 copperplate engravings.
Fourteen months earlier, this copy had been described as "one of the
most celebrated 18th-century fruit books" in the world by the New
York auction firm Christie's, which was retained by the Massachusetts
Horticultural Society to sell it off to the highest bidder.
Known by a shortened form of its lengthy title as the Nurnbergische
Hesperides, the book was assembled between 1708 and 1714 in two
volumes by Johann Christoph Volkamer (1644-1720), a prominent
Nuremberg merchant and citrus farmer. Though by no means the most
dazzling prize put on the block by Christie's on Dec. 18, 2002 --
indeed, it was offered as lot 127 among 132 "important botanical
books" that had been culled from the society's once legendary
collections for the sale --it did fetch $50,190, more than $10,000
above its pre-sale estimate.
Acquired by a buyer who chose to remain anonymous, the two volumes
were taken to Europe and shorn of their plates and calfskin bindings.
Once disassembled, the black-and-white engravings were colored in by
hand, a process that makes them more appealing as wall adornments,
and thus more salable at prices from $500 to $1,500 each, as numerous
Internet searches have confirmed.
Though not illegal, tearing apart a perfectly serviceable work of
scholarly importance in order to extract its illustrations is roundly
reviled as a form of cultural vandalism. When the financially
beleaguered Horticultural Society proceeded with a two-tiered plan in
2002 for replenishing its coffers, there were dissenters who warned
that just such an eventuality might happen to some of the books.
Phase one involved selling 2,219 books and 2,000 journals to the
Chicago Botanic Garden for $3 million. Then, to maximize its return,
the society consigned its most spectacular holdings to Christie's, a
strategy that brought in an additional $2.45 million.
Unable to secure everything -- and fearing for what was about to be
scattered to the four winds -- Chicago Botanic Garden librarian
Edward J. Valauskas quietly put the word out among colleagues to look
for cannibalized books from the Christie's sale he thought might show
up on the antiquarian market.
A few months ago, a Chicago bookseller located what was left of the
Hesperides in Great Britain and acquired it for $2,000; along with
the detached pages of print came 10 of the newly colored plates.
Though the bindings and bookplates had been discarded, a positive
identification was still possible since the Horticultural Society
call numbers remained in place on two interior pages, along with the
notations, "Bur. Oct. 1934," an unambiguous reference to Albert
Cameron Burrage (1859-1931), a Boston tycoon who gave these books --
and many others -- to the society.
Just eight copies of the Nurnbergische Hesperides are reported in
institutional collections worldwide, and only one in New England, at
Yale. No facsimile edition has ever been produced, which is why even
a truncated version is worth having in Chicago.
Valauskas explained that the illustrations were never meant as
decorations, but as integral elements of the text. "Without the
images," he said, "you lose the life of the book." But his anxiety
extends well beyond what happened to this significant artifact. "How
many other books from that auction," he wondered, "have met the same
Robert H. Fraker of Lanesborough, a specialist in natural history
books who appraised the library in the 1990s and argued vehemently
against its breakup, offered this reaction when informed of the
desecration: "Albert Burrage bequeathed his collection to the
Massachusetts Horticultural Society with the good faith expectation
that it would be held there in perpetuity. While the ultimate villain
is the person who put the knife to the book, the Christie's sale
represents a fundamental betrayal of patrimony."
John C. Peterson, president and CEO of the society at the time of
the sale, justified the dispersal then by asserting that the books
"hadn't been used in decades." That will not be the case for the
volumes now under Chicago stewardship. "Plants in Print: The Age of
Botanical Discovery," an exhibition featuring many of the Boston
acquisitions, will be on view from April 1 to July 15 at the United
States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., and travel from there to
Glencoe, Ill., for an opening in September. In October, "Plants in
Print," an international symposium, will be held at the Chicago
Botanic Garden, with the Massachusetts titles occupying center stage.
Nicholas A. Basbanes is author of four books, most recently "A
Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent
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