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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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.)

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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.

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Two copies find new homes

Two copies of the Chaucer that we previously described have now found new academic homes:

(1) The Ward–Watkins–Slocum–Edison copy (Census 2.194), sold at Christie’s on 7 December 2012 [see here], is now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, purchased from Peter Harrington.

(2) The Slater–Gribbel–Schimmel copy (Census 3.179), offered for sale by Heritage Bookshop in 2012 [see here], is now in the University of British Columbia Library, purchased for $202,000 after a two-year fund-raising effort.

We are grateful to Dr. Yuri Cowan for passing this information on to us.

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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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