Searching for a famous book

First wood-engraving by Burne-Jones

We are the authors of The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census, published by Oak Knoll Press in April 2011. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, issued by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896, is probably the most famous of all private press books, set in types, ornaments, and initials designed by Morris and lavishly illustrated by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. There were 425 copies printed on paper and 15 on vellum. Our Census is an attempt to trace as many as possible of those copies, to describe them thoroughly (including bindings), and to summarize the history of ownership of each. In our book we succeeded in locating approximately two-thirds of the pressrun of the Chaucer, but we know that many copies have eluded us. The Kelmscott Chaucer continues to appear from time to time in auction rooms and in dealers’ catalogues, and we have no doubt that the publication of our Census will have the effect of bringing even more out into the open. We decided that we needed some medium to record this new information as it came to light; this blog, therefore, is an effort to keep our book up to date. We envision several kinds of posts. When we locate new copies of the Chaucer, we will eventually describe them in the same format we used in the Census; but in the meantime, before all the information is available, we will offer brief “preliminary notes” about what we know so far. In other cases, when we learn about copies being offered for sale, we will write short posts about them; later, when more details emerge (such as the price realized or the name of the purchaser), we will report those facts as well. It is possible also that occasionally we may write posts not related to specific copies of the Chaucer but rather based on some experiences or reflections that grew out of our pursuit of this celebrated book. We welcome additions and corrections to our Census; please write us at (And keep in mind that we also have another website devoted to the library of William Morris.)

— William S. Peterson & Sylvia Holton Peterson    

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Liverpool Cathedral copy

We have learned that the copy of the Chaucer owned by Liverpool Cathedral (2.107 in our Census), formerly deposited in the University of Liverpool Library, was in 2012 moved to Special Collections, the Sheppard-Worlock Library, Liverpool Hope University.

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A new binding for the Terry–Cohn copy


Bromer Booksellers (Boston) is offering for sale a copy of the Chaucer rebound by Hannah Brown; it was on display at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair earlier this month and is now priced at $125,000.

Brown’s binding (see above) was inspired by a series of embroideries by May Morris and is based on Chaucer’s The Legend of Goode Wimmen, with each woman “represented on the covers by a species of flower or butterfly that bears the same name.” (Brown’s blog discusses her work on the binding in some detail.)

We had listed this as an unlocated copy in our Census (3.189): it was once owned by the Rev. Roderick Terry of Newport, R.I. (see his bookplate below) and later by Saul Cohn of East Orange, N.J. On this blog we have also recorded a recent sale of the book in 2017 (Terry–Cohn copy to be sold).



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Bonna–Bergé copy sold

A previously unlocated copy of the Chaucer was sold by Sotheby (in association with Pierre Bergé & associés), Paris, 28 June 2017, lot 692, for €52,634. It had a blind-stamped brown morocco binding (“maroquin brun décoré à froid, dos à cinq nerfs, entrenerfs décorés de fleurons quadrilobés, plats encadrés d’une bordure de filets, losanges et fleurons à froid, bordure intérieure ornée d’une large guirlande, non rogné (reliure postérieure)”), and the previous owners were identified as Jean A. Bonna and Pierre Bergé.

Jean A. Bonna, a Swiss banker, is a celebrated collector of paintings, drawings, books, and manuscripts.

Pierre Bergé (1930–2017) was a partner of Yves Saint Laurent, had broad cultural interests, and in 2015 was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor.

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Talk by Dominic Riley



Dominic Riley, bookbinder and artist, will give a talk entitled “A Kelmscott Chaucer for Our Times: Celebrating a New Binding” at the Book Club of California on 10 July 2017. The Club has furnished the following summary:

When it was produced in 1896, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press was hailed as the greatest book of its age. Designed by Morris and lavishly illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones, 425 copies were printed (one of which resides at the Book Club of California). Some are still in their original bindings, and others are in extremely fine bindings done since, leaving a few in poor bindings in need of a new cover. In 2012, Dominic Riley was commissioned to rebind such a copy, with a view to create a contemporary fine binding for it. This talk is a record of that project.

The task set before him was daunting: this is a very famous, very big, and very valuable book. And, needless to say, the opportunity to create a new binding for one does not come along very often. In addition to this, the collector expressed a wish that the binding, when finished, should be something that “Bernard Middleton would be proud that Dominic had executed, and that William Morris would appreciate.” He also stated that he would like the binding design to be both “traditional and contemporary.” Dominic spent four years thinking about the book, allowing Morris’s art and aesthetics to percolate (he doesn’t do preliminary sketches). During 2016 he designed and bound the book, taking inspiration from Morris’s ornaments to create a bold and typographic motif, which is a blaze of gold tooling.

In this lecture, Dominic will talk about the genesis of the design, from rough ideas to final execution, and the laborious process of building the binding for this iconic book, which is being donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As William Morris said “the best thing you can do is build is a house. The second best thing you can do is build is a book.” And, as Bernard Middleton says “there is nothing more pleasing than the play of light on leather and gold.”

Dominic Riley is one the most renowned bookbinders working today. His design bindings are in collections worldwide, including the British Library, the St Bride Library, the Rylands in Manchester, the National Library of Wales, the Grolier Club, and the San Francisco Public Library. He has created over seventy design bindings to date, and when he is not making contemporary artistic bindings he restores antiquarian books and teaches.

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Complete set of Kelmscott books for sale

Bruce Marshall Rare Books (Cheltenham, England) has issued a catalogue entitled A Complete Collection of the Kelmscott Press. The Chaucer is a quarter-linen binding, with no evidence (in the catalogue, at least) of previous owners.

The collection is evidently meant to be sold as a single entity, but there is no price listed in the catalogue. The books are all housed in matching half-vellum boxes, and the collection includes a few ephemera and Burne-Jones drawings and revised proofs.

(Thanks to Mark Samuels Lasner for giving us a copy of the catalogue.)

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Terry–Cohn copy to be sold

A copy of the Chaucer that crops up several times in our Census has resurfaced and is scheduled to sold by Sotheby (New York) on 13 June 2017. The Sotheby catalogue offers this description: “Original linen-backed blue-gray boards, printed spine label. Front inner hinge cracked, inscription in pencil on lower free endpaper, extremities darkened, spine somewhat worn, spine label chipped. Red morocco slipcase, spine gilt.”

The provenance, as we are now able to reconstruct it, is as follows (with Census item numbers in brackets): Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry [3.189]. — Terry sale, Anderson Galleries (New York), 7 November 1934, lot 174 [4.305] (sold for $425). — Saul Cohn. — Cohn sale, Parke-Bernet, 18 October 1955, lot 594 (sold for $500) [4.502]. — Sotheby (New York), 12 December 1995, lot 99 (sold for $22,000) [4.708]. — Sotheby (New York), 13 June 2017, lot 41 (estimate $40,000–$50,000).

The Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry (1849–1933), a graduate of Yale, the Union Theological Seminary, and Princeton, was a Presbyterian minister who retired to Newport, R.I., where he became active in local philanthropic and cultural affairs. Terry’s books and manuscripts were sold after his death in three sales during 1934 and 1935. His son Roderick Terry, Jr., also left an autograph collection of figures prominent in colonial and early United States history to the Redwood Library and Museum in Newport.

Saul Cohn (1886–1954), of East Orange, N.J., was president of the City Stores Mercantile Company. His books, manuscripts, and drawings were dispersed in three sales by Parke-Bernet in 1955, and some of his correspondence is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (An obituary of Cohn appeared in the New York Times, 6 June 1954, p. 86.)

[Update, 21 October 2017: This copy sold for $52,500 (including buyer’s premium).]

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The Hersholt copy again


The copy of the Chaucer once owned by the Danish-born Hollywood film actor Jean Hersholt (1886–1956) (see our earlier post) has again surfaced — this time on the website of the Melbourne dealer Douglas Stewart Fine Books — with a price of $125,000 (AUD). Its provenance is as follows:

Jean Hersholt. — Hersholt sale, Parke-Bernet (New York), 23–24 March 1954, lot 541 [then in the standard quarter-linen binding] (sold for $375). — Heritage Auctions (New York), 7 April lot 2011, lot 36233 (sold for $44,812.50 including buyer’s premium). — Buddenbrooks (Boston), offered online in 2013 for $93,500. — Private collection, Australia. — Douglas Stewart Fine Books, 2017.

Thanks to Philip Bishop for calling our attention to this.

[Update, 31 January 2018: Douglas Stewart Fine Books continues to advertise the book on the Web, though the price is now given in American dollars: $100,000.]

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