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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Three copies for sale in one month

[Originally posted 24 November 2015; most recent revision, 5 September 2016.]

By coincidence, three copies of the Chaucer are coming up for sale next month (December 2015).

(1) Swann, on 1 December (lot 140), will be offering a quarter-linen copy in a modern clamshell case, with an estimate of $45,000–$60,000. The spine label and the binding show some signs of wear. (For an earlier sale of the book, see this post.)

[Update, 5 December 2015.] The book sold for $62, 500 (including buyer’s premium). Here is a link to the online catalogue. And we apologize for the wrong date in our original post: the auction was on 24 November 2015, not 1 December.

(2) Christie’s (New York), in its 8 December auction (lot 226), will sell another copy, this in a blue morocco binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe with a cloth slipcase. The estimate is $4o,000–$60,000. (We listed this in our Census, 3.228, under unlocated copies.)

[Update, 9 December 2015.] This copy sold for $50,000.

(3) The most spectacular of the three copies is the one included in Sotheby’s (London) sale of 15 December, lot 82, inscribed by Morris “to R. Catterson Smith from William Morris July 7th 1896.” There are only a few copies of the Chaucer signed by Morris, who died a few months after its publication, and what lends importance to this particular inscription is that Robert Catterson-Smith was heavily involved in the production of the book: he revised Burne-Jones’s designs before they were handed over to the engraver. (On Catterson-Smith, see also this post and this one.) The pre-auction estimate is £100,000–£200,000. The binding is quarter-linen with a loose-fitting Morris fabric covering, reproduced below:


[Update, 5 September 2016.] Our apologies for being so slow in recording the following information. This extremely interesting association copy failed to find a buyer at the auction, but afterwards it was purchased from the family by Mark Samuels Lasner, whose collection is at the University of Delaware Library. He also acquired at the sale a substantial body of correspondence and other documents that shed new light on Catterson-Smith’s role in creating the illustrations for the Chaucer.

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Copy for sale in Massachusetts

A quarter-linen copy (Census, 3.177, 4.710) is listed for sale by Buddenbooks, Inc., Newburyport, Mass., for $115,500. Provenance: Robert Heysham Sayre, George Abrams.

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Copy for sale in Tokyo

The Kageroubunko Bookshop in Tokyo has an interesting copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer for sale. The book has a Doves binding that is quite brown, as if the book had been in a fire. Sections of the binding, specifically around the spine, seem to have been professionally repaired. The contents, however, are totally undamaged and in impeccable condition. There are no marks of provenance in the book. It was bought by the present owner’s father in the 1970s, but the source is not known. Please contact us if anyone knows of a book of the above description. Could it be the damaged book we describe in our Census, 2.244?

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Discovery of a sales receipt

Brian Johnson, son of Folger Johnson of Portland, Oregon [see this earlier post], has found the sales receipt for his father’s copy of the Chaucer from Philip C. Duschnes, 5 May 1945, for $950 (probably Census 4.400 and 4.412).

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Restoration of Occidental College copy

Sophia Bogle of Save Your Books has recently restored the Kelmscott Chaucer at Occidental College (Census, 2.162). She has made two videos of the book on YouTube, one before restoration and one after.



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Lyon and Turnbull: copy sold

Lyon and Turnbull, (Edinburgh) sold a quarter-linen copy of the Chaucer on 10 September 2014 for £33,650. The book was originally purchased by Percy Scawen Wyndham. In a note on the front endpaper he writes, “This book is left to my son Guy — Percy Wyndham, July 1896.” In another hand: “This was sold in April 1942 by Basil Blackwell to W. R. Wilson of Rudge Hall for £148.”

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Leon Fine copy

We have learned that Dr. Leon Fine of Los Angeles, a new member of the Grolier Club, owns a Kelmscott Chaucer (3.103 and 4.748 in our census). This is a quarter-linen copy originally purchased by George James Howard, ninth Earl of Carlisle (1843–1911), of Castle Howard, Yorkshire, an aristocratic artist who was on very friendly terms with both Burne-Jones and Morris.

Howard left the book to his daughter, Lady Dorothy Howard/Henley (who died in 1968), and her inscription appears on the front pastedown. The book remained in the family until it was sold to Dr. Fine by Simon Finch (London) in 2002.

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