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William Morris's Press Goes to a Museum, and Newton's Principia Sets a Record

Jeanne Schinto | December 6th, 2013


William Morris, when contemplating “what should be the thing most to be longed for” in life, said he thought it should be, first, “a beautiful House” and then “a beautiful Book.” “To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort seems to me to be the pleasurable end toward which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle,” he once wrote in an unfinished essay. On this Hopkinson & Cope Albion No. 6551 at Morris’s Kelmscott Press was printed The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, considered to be among the most beautiful books in the world.

The Christie’s catalog called The Kelmscott/Goudy Press “the most famous printing press in the annals of modern fine press printing.” It sold to the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, for $233,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). Schinto photos.


These are among the 70 pages of autograph notes written on sheets of yellow legal pads by John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign that sold to a member of the trade in the room for $15,000 (est. $5000/7000).


King James II’s presentation copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica sold for $2,517,000 (est. $400,000/600,000). According to Christie’s, the price is the new world auction record for a scientific book.


This $5 check, signed by Abraham Lincoln to his barber and valet, “William Johnson (Colored),” sold on line for $13,750 (est. $8000/12,000). Johnson worked for Lincoln for much of 1861 and then sporadically, but he did accompany him in December 1863 to Gettysburg, where he may have contracted smallpox. (Lincoln himself suffered with smallpox beginning shortly after his return from Gettysburg.) The disease proved fatal for Johnson, who died in January 1864, and Lincoln paid for his funeral and tombstone. The check was dated October 27, 1862.


George Washington’s gold fob personal seal, engraved with his coat of arms, sold on the phone to a private individual for $245,000 (est. $200,000/250,000). It is 1¾" tall.


This George Washington autograph document sold for $245,000 (est. $250,000/300,000). Dated July 15, 1799, five months before the former president’s death, the four-page signed list described 40 slaves that Washington had leased from a neighbor and was seeking to divest.


This battle damage assessment map of Pearl Harbor sold for $425,000 (est. $400,000/600,000). Hand-drawn by Mitsuo Fuchida, lead pilot of the Japanese attack, in preparation for a briefing of Emperor Hirohito, it is dated December 26, 1941, and its dimensions are 31¾" x 23 5/8". Shown with it in the catalog was a Japanese photo of an early phase of the attack.

Christie’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Christie’s

At Christie’s sale of fine printed books and manuscripts in New York City on December 6, 2013, one of the two top highlights was not made of paper. It was an iron printing press. Gutenberg’s invention was a 15th-century marvel of movable type that revolutionized the world. The press that sold in the salesroom at 20 Rockefeller Plaza isn’t revered today for any technological innovation. Made by Hopkinson & Cope, London, in 1891, it isn’t even particularly old. Its greatness lies in its association with the person who used it and what he used it for.

Known as the Albion No. 6551, the press belonged to British designer, poet-writer, traditional crafts reviver, and social reformer William Morris (1834-1896). He bought it for his Kelmscott Press, which was in operation only in the last half-dozen years of his life. Morris, who referred to Kelmscott Press as his “little typographical adventure,” strove to revive the skills of hand printing. At the other end of the spectrum, bigger editions of books meant more literacy for more people, to be sure, but it also meant the horrendous smell that comes from wood-pulp paper mills and the scourge of meritless mass-marketed paperbacks, e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey. Morris believed that mechanization had destroyed, among other things, the potential for books to be genuine works of art.

This big (nearly 7' tall) black-painted behemoth, which requires substantial physical power and manual agility to operate, was the third Albion that Morris bought for Kelmscott Press, situated in a rented cottage in Hammersmith on the western outskirts of London not far from where he lived. With it, in the final two years of his life, he printed his masterpiece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Decorated with ornamental initials and borders, and illustrated with 87 images by Edward Burne-Jones, Morris’s Chaucer is considered one of the most beautiful books ever produced. Burne-Jones, a celebrated Victorian painter who was Morris’s friend and collaborator, compared the book to “a pocket cathedral.” Someone else said that the letters and decorations looked not only as if they had grown one out of the other, but “as if they could go on growing.”

 The book is also recognized as a major influence on the modern private press movement that Morris sparked. As for Morris himself, according to historian William S. Peterson’s The Kelmscott Press, published in 1991, “it is indisputable that he is the progenitor of nearly all twentieth-century private presses that have emphasized fine printing.”

Although it had a relatively modest estimate ($100,000/150,000), Christie’s chose the press for its cover lot. The auction house also displayed it in its first-floor lobby, where it didn’t quite fit in with the American paintings on the surrounding walls. But, hey, an electric guitar played by Bob Dylan and displayed in a nearby alcove didn’t either, and the instrument went for nearly a million later that day.

The consignors of the press were Jethro K. Lieberman, a law school professor, and his wife, Jo Shifrin, who live in Ardsley, New York. They were present in the salesroom when Philip C. Salmon, manager of Bromer Booksellers of Boston, placed the winning bid for $233,000 (includes buyer’s premium), beating out competition from order-book bidders and the Internet. Directly after the sale, Salmon said he had been acting as agent for an institution he could not name until it had made its own official announcement. Soon enough, the new owner came forward via an Internet-disseminated press release. It was the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Rochester, New York.

So how did this press end up in the United States in the first place? That story is recounted in its provenance, a chain of custody that bears witness to the shared passion of a succession of people who have had it in their charge over the last 115 years.

In 1897, Kelmscott Press closed and announced that its stock and presses were to be “sold by private treaty.” C.R. Ashbee’s Essex House Press got the hardware including the Chaucer Albion. Ashbee also hired some of Morris’s former employees, then set about printing imitation Kelmscott Press books, of which it was said only inmates of Earlswood (called then an idiots’ asylum) would likely confuse with the real thing. To be fair, there were scores of other imitators, and the look of those products even got a name—the Arts and Crafts style.

One printer who paid homage to Morris, rather than merely imitating him, was the celebrated American type-designer Frederic W. Goudy (1865-1947). After another couple of British owners, Goudy, a Morris acolyte, bought the Chaucer Albion next. He had it transported to Marlborough, New York, for use in his Village Press. The first thing that issued forth from it under Goudy was “Printing,” an 1893 essay by Morris and his colleague and compatriot, engraver and photographer Sir Emery Walker (1851-1933). At the end of the essay they wrote: With “well-designed type, due spacing of the lines and words, and proper position of the page, all books might be at least comely and well-looking: and if to these good qualities were added really beautiful ornament and pictures, printed books might once again illustrate to the full the position of our Society that a work of utility might be also a work of art, if we cared to make it so.”

Goudy didn’t own the press long. He needed money badly and sold it to Spencer Kellogg Jr. (1861-1938), an heir to a linseed-oil fortune who, instead of joining the family firm, had studied at the Art Students League. Besides his artistic pursuits, Kellogg ran a bookshop in Eden, New York, and also founded a book printing firm, Aries Press, that produced among other things 31 copies of Morris’s poem “In Praise of my Lady.”

Kellogg discontinued his press in 1928 and put the Albion into storage. Melbert B. Cary Jr. (1892-1941) was the press’s subsequent owner. He installed it in New York City on March 24, 1932, Morris’s birthday. As director of the Continental Type Founders Association, he imported many important European typefaces into the United States. A man who married well (his wife, Mary, was a granddaughter of Standard Oil’s Henry Flagler), he assembled a large library of private press books and printers’ manuals. He also operated his own Press of the Woolly Whale from 1928 until his untimely death.

George W. Van Vechten Jr. (1907-1962) received the Chaucer Albion in a Cary bequest. Van Vechten had produced private and limited edition works for Goudy at the Village Press before going to work for Cary. He also ran Van Vechten Press in Metuchen, New Jersey. The Albion remained in pieces in Van Vechten’s shed, however, and, realizing he would never have the time to use it, he sought a buyer.

In 1960, Jethro Lieberman’s parents, Elizabeth and J. Ben Lieberman, bought the press from Van Vechten for use in their Herity Press. J. Ben Lieberman (1914-1984) was a journalist and public relations executive who as an avocation helped lead the private press revival movement of the 1950’s. Along the way, he founded and became first president of the American Printing History Association. The younger Lieberman said his mother “didn’t have quite the same passion” for the subject as his father had, “but she went along with him,” a big enough contribution to the cause. How many other spouses would allow the press to have pride of place in the middle of the family living room as she did? Or acquiesce in moving its 2000- or 3000-pound bulk from the Liebermans’ residence in White Plains, New York, to West New York, New Jersey, then on to another home, in New Rochelle, New York?

On June 26, 1962, at an event whose participants included members of the William Morris Society, the Liebermans topped the press with a small liberty bell. It was still there when the press went on view at the Christie’s preview—a reminder of the vital role that private presses have long played in protecting the freedoms of the First Amendment. And instead of calling it the Chaucer Albion or the Kelmscott Press, the family dubbed it the Kelmscott/Goudy Press in honor of its second most important historical association.

Ben Lieberman, by all accounts, was a private printing press proselytizer. A hobbyist who identifies herself only as Carole has blogged about the time she visited the Liebermans in White Plains in the mid-1960’s. (See www.letterpressdaughter.blogspot.com.) She writes about it, Even though I was young, I was familiar enough with the names William Morris and Frederic Goudy to know that I was looking at the Holy Grail of printing presses. I was even more awed when Ben invited our entire family to print bookmarks on it...Even though my sister and I were kids, [he] was perfectly willing to let us pull an impression on this priceless old press. He patiently explained just what to do and how to do it safely. What a thrill when I took out my own personalized bookmark, printed on the actual press William Morris and Frederic Goudy had used!

“I had no trouble printing my bookmark, but my little sister was too short to reach across the press to pull the bar on the press. And she wanted to! So Ben picked her up by the waist and lifted her so she could grab the bar and print a bookmark, too.”

After her husband died, Mrs. Lieberman kept the press right where it was. In 1997, she moved it once more, when she went to live with her son in Ardsley. Upon her death in 2001, the press became the son’s property. More than a dozen years later, it was time to let it go. “In my upcoming retirement,” the younger Lieberman, now age 70, said, “I imagined that I would dabble with it, but eventually I realized that I am more of a content person.” He authored The Litigious Society among other books. “It’s too compelling to produce words in the new ways rather than in the old ways. It was time to get it to someone who would put it to use.”

Before the sale, the professor told the New York Times that he hoped a dedicated printer or hand-press amateur would buy the press and put it back into use. In the past, he and his parents had rebuffed museum overtures for fear that the press would be relegated to storage.

In the end, although an institution is the new owner, the press will be used, said Steven Galbraith, curator of the Cary collection, who witnessed the auction but didn’t make his presence known. In a prepared statement, he declared: “The Kelmscott/Goudy Press will have an active life at RIT, not simply as a museum artifact, but as a working press accessible to students, scholars and printers.” Indeed, the Albion No. 6551 will be housed in the Cary collection’s Arthur M. Lowenthal Memorial Pressroom, which already has a working collection of 15 historical printing presses and more than 1500 fonts of metal and wood type. Galbraith’s statement continued, “I look forward to seeing what is produced on the press in the decades to come. I’m certain that the Kelmscott/Goudy Press will be a great inspiration to students at RIT and to others who visit our library’s pressroom.”

Supporting study of the press are the Cary collection’s Kelmscott Press publications, an archive of material related to Goudy, and one related to Melbert B. Cary Jr.’s Press of the Woolly Whale. Its namesake is indeed the same Cary who once owned the press. In 1969, the nucleus of the Cary collection was presented to RIT by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, together with funds to support the use and growth of the collection.

When asked if his family owned anything printed on the press by any of its previous owners, Professor Lieberman said, “There are a lot of papers and other materials here that I haven’t yet gone through, but I know we didn’t have a Chaucer. That would have called for another auction,” he said with a laugh. True enough. Christie’s had sold a Morris Chaucer in May 2012 for $140,500. (It has the original Doves Bindery handbound cover.)

The other highlight of this sale was a traditional book, but a truly singular one, as evidenced by the price. Going at $2,517,000 (est. $400,000/600,000), it was James II’s presentation copy of a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Principia for short). Eight phone bidders were the major contenders for Newton’s statement of his laws of motion, including the law of universal gravity.

In Einstein’s words, Principia represents “perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make.” Added to that equation was the association, which many bibliophiles would call one of the richest to be obtained. Bound in goatskin, the book was presented to the king as patron of the Royal Society, to whose fellowship the book was dedicated. Cross-collecting dynamics were surely at work, but the winner’s identity, along with those of the underbidders, remains unknown. In a press release Christie’s described the book’s new owner only as “Anonymous.” In the same release, Christie’s said the price is the new world auction record for a scientific book.

Besides the press, this sale offered another major non-paper item. It was George Washington’s gold fob personal seal, engraved with his coat of arms. The seal may be the one depicted in several Washington portraits, including the image reproduced in the catalog, Gilbert Stuart’s Washington at Dorchester Heights, which is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The fob’s provenance is lengthy, It includes several generations of Washingtons, and it had once before been sold at Christie’s, in May 1985, as part of the Calvin Bullock estate. This time it sold on the phone for $245,000 (est. $200,000/250,000) to a buyer described by Christie’s only as “a private individual.”

For the same price of $245,000 a member of the U.S. trade bought an extraordinary Washington autograph document. Five months before his death, on July 15, 1799, the former president was seeking to divest himself of 40 slaves that he had leased from a neighbor. The four-page signed list was originally enclosed in a letter (not part of the lot) to Benjamin Dulany. The entries are vivid shorthand descriptions, giving names, ages, occupations, aptitudes, and other details of the slaves’ states of health.

For example, “Julius, abt. 23” is said to have been a “Very good Carter, and can do any other work, although defective in shape from his Infancy.” “Lucy, abt. 55” was “Lame, or pretends to be so, occasioned by rheumatic pains, but is a good knitter, & so employed.” “Hannah, abt. 14,” was “Nearly at her full growth, and a woman in appear[an]ce.” “Abram, in his prime,” was “A good Ploughman...and Mower of Grass—a good Seedsman....” On the other hand, “Tom, About 28,” although “A good Mower and an excellent Ploughman,” had “unfortunately...some tumour in his head.” Washington added, “It is feared that blindness, partial if not entire, will ensue” and noted  that Tom had been “constantly attended by Dr. Craik” (Washington’s personal physician).

Washington would have been all too aware of the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and the “peculiar institution” of
slavery. In his will, he stipulated that his slaves should be freed after Martha’s death. To have freed them upon his own death would have been far more heroic but perhaps an impossibly radical act—culturally, socially, and financially—even for a “god” like Washington.

The raw humanity of another American statesman was on display in 70 pages of autograph notes, written on sheets of yellow legal pads by president-to-be John F. Kennedy. The candidate had written the notes during his 1960 presidential run, because his voice had given out while stumping. Just as many a candidate does, he was suffering from laryngitis. Sometimes the notes merely reflect the state of his mind and body, e.g., “I am exhausted—My voice is about to go completely.” Also, “Perhaps we should have Teddy make speech tonight—I will just shake hands.” And “When we get in let’s first go to some hotel for a bath etc.—we do not need to spend 1½ hours at reception.” Other times they are more substantive discussions of election strategy, e.g., “We are 62-38 in South Charleston. If we could carry Kanawa we would win...Ted: We have to spend some time in Kanawa County...” A fascinating record of a moment in the life of a historic political campaign, the pages sold to a member of the trade in the room for $15,000 (est. $5000/7000).

Of the several Thomas Jefferson items on offer, an autograph letter signed by him as president-elect was among the most noteworthy. Dated March 2, 1801, the single page was addressed to James Hillhouse, the president pro tempore of the Senate (as “Sir”). It announced that Jefferson would take the oath of office a couple of days later. The backstory, a bitterly contested election, provided much of the value here. This is in a sense the epilogue. Formerly in the Forbes collection, the letter was previously sold at Christie’s on May 18, 1991, for $159,500. This time, it sold on the phone for $93,750 (est. $30,000/50,000).

The third and last copy of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that was owned by direct descendants of its author went at this sale. One of only 200 copies printed for private circulation among Jefferson’s friends and acquaintances, the book sold to a private individual in the room for $269,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). Christie’s had sold the two other copies owned by the same consignors for more and for less, respectively. One went for $314,500 on December 7, 2012; the other for $183,750 on June 21, 2013.

Bidding as an absentee, a private collector in the United States paid $425,000 for a hand-drawn map of Pearl Harbor, prepared by Mitsuo Fuchida, lead pilot of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Showing post-battle damage with red x’s and arrows, the map was prepared for a briefing with Emperor Hirohito within the month. On May 3, 1994, at Sotheby’s, the map had sold to Malcolm Forbes for $321,500.

Two dozen lots of Winston Churchill material from the Forbes collection were mostly absorbed. Seth Kaller of White Plains, New York, bidding in the room, bought the most expensive lot—a signed ten-page typescript that attacked socialism and Russian communism. “The Socialist delusion” that government would be a better wealth-getter for the public than private enterprise “cannot be too mercilessly exposed,” Churchill wrote in 1931. Kaller paid $25,000 (est. $3000/5000) for this response by Churchill to an article in the Week End Review.

Could there be a view of capitalism more diametrically opposed to Church-
ill’s than that expressed by Allen Ginsberg in his poem “Howl”? A special purple-mimeographed edition, one of only 25 copies printed for presentation, sold for $118,750 (est. $70,000/90,000). Typed by Ginsberg’s fellow poet Robert Creeley, it was cranked off on a ditto machine by Marthe Rexroth, third wife of poet Kenneth Rexroth. Signed by Ginsberg, it was inscribed by several other important Beat personages including Lawrence Ferlin-
ghetti, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure. Ferlinghetti published the first trade edition of “Howl” through his City Lights Press in 1956.

A phone bidder paid $317,000 (est. $150,000/250,000) for a huge work of early American exploratory science in 23 volumes by biologist Alexander von Humboldt and botanist Aimé Bonpland. A comprehensive and fully illustrated account of their trip through Central and South America, Voyage aux Régions Équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent Fait en 1799-1804 was published in Paris in 1807-25. This copy was once owned by Beriah Botfield (1807-1863), a British member of Parliament. Its new owner was described by Christie’s only as “a private.”

One of 350 copies of the first (and only) edition of William Bradford’s The Arctic Regions went to a member of the United Kingdom trade for $125,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). Subtitled as Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland, the book was published in London in 1873. An account of Bradford’s last Arctic voyage in 1869, it includes 141 mounted albumen photographs shot by Boston photographers John Dunmore and George Critcherson—images that became the basis for the artist’s work for the remaining years of his life.

Dealers bought other big items, impressive either for their girth, their graphics, or both, and often paid within or below estimate. These included Frederick DuCane Godman’s copy of his own encyclopedia, Biologia Centrali-Americana, which he edited with Osbert Salvin. A thoroughly illustrated, comprehensive study of Central American wildlife in 66 volumes, the set was issued from 1879 to 1915. This copy sold to a member of the U.S. trade in the room for $137,000 (est. $120,000/180,000).

What didn’t bidders want, at least not at the reserves indicated by the estimates? They passed on a copy of Peter Force’s 1833 printing of the Declaration of Independence, from W.J. Stone’s 1823 plate (est. $25,000/35,000). They didn’t go for a printed document signed by Jefferson on the subject of the Second Patent Act (est. $80,000/120,000). They were unmoved by two hand-colored lithographic plates of orchids from James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, offered in one lot (est. $80,000/120,000).

Despite these minor disappointments, the overall success of the sale achieved $6,743,750. For more information, see Christie’s Web site (www.christies.com) or phone the auction house at (212) 636-2000.


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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