Tag Archives: Book collecting

Update: Mark Twain, Eugene Field, and a Skeptical Odyssey in the Stacks

Back in March, I shared something we had recently discovered in the Special Collections vault: an 1835 edition of Cruikshank at Home, inscribed by noted authors Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Eugene Field.  We were excited to find the autographs of these two 19th century literary giants, especially because no mention of the inscriptions was made in our library catalog.  However, our excitement began to sour somewhat when we discovered an additional inscription in the back of the book: a note from Eugene Field II, son of the famous poet.

Inscriptions in our copy of copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

Inscriptions in our copy of copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

At face value, the note seemed to corroborate the authenticity of the signatures, claiming that the volume had come from the library of Field Sr. — but a little research cast doubt on this assertion.  It turns out that the younger Field was a notorious forger of literary autographs, including his father’s and Twain’s.  Lacking the requisite expertise to tell a well-faked Twain signature from the real deal, we exhibited the book as a curiosity, but could say nothing more on the matter.

While we are still unable to take a confident position on the authenticity of the signatures, just recently we’ve made some additional (re)discoveries that have thrust our questionable Cruikshank back into the limelight.

Our new Special Collections Librarian Pat Olson was thumbing through old copies of the MSU Friends of the Library newsletter, when one article in particular caught his eye.  The article details the donation of a private library to Michigan State in the fall of 1952:

On September 29th, 1952, Mr. Charles G. Munn of the Reynolds Spring Company of Jackson, Michigan, very kindly donated his private library of 700 volumes to Michigan State College.  Mr. Munn’s books were officially appraised by the Manufacturers’ Appraisal Company at $4,000.  Standard authors… were represented by exceptionally well bound sets, and among these were some first editions, some books with outstanding illustrations, and no less than ten autographed volumes and sets.

The article goes on to list several of the “more outstanding rarities” from the Munn library.  Lo and behold, among the thirteen enumerated books is our now infamous Cruikshank (with an appraiser’s valuation):


Now, at least, we knew where we had acquired the volume.  Interestingly, the Clemens and Field autographs were not only known, but were a highlight of the collection.  It’s amazing what knowledge can be lost when you don’t keep meticulous historical records (this acquisition, remember, came a full decade before Special Collections existed as a separate library).  As an institution, we had forgotten all about the inscriptions over the course of the last 60 years.

Reading on, we discovered a connection among several volumes in the Munn collection.  Six other books on the list were stated to have come from the Field family library, with inscriptions to prove it:

Byron, George Gordon.
Works… With His Letters and Journals, and His Life, by Thomas Moore, Esq. London, Murray, 1832.
14 vols.; bound in green leather, gold tooled.  Autograph of Eugene Field on title page.  Appraisal $119.
Chesterfield, Earl of.
Letters to His Son… on the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman… With Topical Headings and a Special Introduction by Oliver H. G. Leigh.  New York, Dingwall-Rock, c 1901.
2 vols.; bound in red leather, gold tooled.  “Of the Beau Brummel Edition of the Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, 1999 sets have been printed of which this is set No. 1111.”  On back page: “Added after his Death.  This book comes from the library of my father, Eugene Field.  Eugene Field II.  Sept. 11, 1921.”  Appraised at $100.
Field, Eugene.
The Writings in Prose and Verse…  N. Y., Scribners, 1896.
12 vols.; bound in blue leather, gold tooled.  Autographed on fore page of Vol. 1 by Julia S. Field (Mrs. Eugene Field).  Appraised at $96.
 Irving, Washington.
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  London, Murray, 1828.
4 vols.  Penciled notation “First Edition” on fore page.  Eugene Field’s autograph on inside cover.  Appraised at $100.
Shakespeare, William.
The Plays and Poems… according to the Improved Text of Edmund Malone… ed. by A. J. Valpy.  London, Bohn, 1853.
15 vols.; illustrated with steel engravings.  Vol. 1 contains autograph of Eugene Field at top of title page and autograph of S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) on fore page.  Appraised $225.
Tarkington, Booth.
Works.  New York, Doubleday, 1922.
16 vols.  Seawood Edition “…strictly limited to 1075 numbered and registered copies, each with a portrait signed by the author in volume one.”  Mr. Munn’s set was No. 2.  Vol. 1 is signed by “Doubleday Page and Co.” and undersigned by Booth Tarkington and each of the remaining volumes is autographed by Tarkington on the title page between title and publishers’ data.  Vol. 1 also contains autograph of Julia S. Field (Mrs. Eugene Field) on a fore page.  The set appraised at $128.

We had struck a Eugene Field gold mine: three additional volumes supposedly bearing Field’s inscription, one of which also featured another Clemens/Twain autograph.  Two featuring the autograph of Field’s wife, Julia, and one with a note from Field’s son, matching almost exactly the note in the back of the Cruikshank volume.

Naturally, we went on a hunt to find these other books on our stacks.

The Byron we were unable to locate.  Special Collections does have an 1832 set of Byron’s Works, but it is in 17 volumes, not 14, and in a green library cloth binding, not gold tooled green leather.  None of the volumes bears the autograph of Eugene Field on the title page.  Interestingly, the first 12 or so of the volumes indicate that they are “volume __ out of 14” whereas the final volumes are “out of 17”.  Whether the publishers changed their minds about the size of the set mid-run, or we have two partial sets put together, I don’t know.


Inscription from Eugene Field II, on a rear flyleaf of the Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (BJ1671.C52 1925 v.1)

We were eventually able to find the inscribed copy of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, but it was being kept in the general stacks, not in Special Collections!  After verifying that this copy was the same one mentioned in the library newsletter, we rescued the two volume set and transferred it to our rare book collection.  However, there are some odd things going on with this inscription from Eugene Field II.

This particular edition of Chesterfield (the Beau Brummel edition) was printed in 1925, although the note in the back from Field’s son is dated 1921.  The copyright for this version of the text goes back as far as 1901, but even that is a full six years after Field’s death in 1895.  Needless to say, these facts cast some serious doubt on his son’s claim that the book came from his father’s library.


Julia S. Field’s inscription (?), in The Writings in Prose and Verse of Eugene Field (PS1665.A2 1896 v.1)

We were also successful in finding the listed copy of Field’s Writings in Prose and Verse.  Sure enough, the half-title of the first volume seems to bear an inscription from Julia Field.  Again, there is something odd about this inscription.  Maybe I’m being too cynical, but the parenthetical addition of “Mrs. Eugene Field” after the name seems a little too on-the-nose, don’t you think?  Also strange is the fact that the signature only appears on the first volume of the 12 volume set.

Ah well, perhaps Mrs. Field was merely autographing the work for someone else, to add value to the set — the world may never know!


Eugene Field autograph.  A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Washington Irving (XX PS2072.H67 1828 v.1)

The Washington Irving set was right where it should be on the shelf.  Eugene Field’s (supposed) autograph, matching the one in our Cruikshank, was indeed penned on the inside cover.


Note in the back of the 1828 Irving.

Interestingly, however, we found another note from Field’s son, on a rear flyleaf of the first volume.  This note was not included in the set’s description in the 1952 newsletter.

As with the other six books with supposed Field provenance, I have my doubts that the Eugene Field autograph in our Irving volume is authentic.  If it is supposed to be an ownership inscription, which it certainly looks like, why is only the first volume signed?  There is another, older ownership inscription in this same book (on the title page), and that signature appears consistently across all four volumes (which is much more common, in my experience).  What if Field had loaned or lost volumes 2, 3, or 4?  Am I being too cynical again?

Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the Shakespeare or the Tarkington sets among our collections.  There is no trace whatsoever of the Shakespeare volumes, and no record of sale or deaccession.  The Tarkington, however, is another (stranger) matter: we do have a 16 volume Tarkington set matching the newsletter description almost exactly… except that it’s No. 315 in the limited set of 1075, not Mr. Munn’s copy No. 2.  As such, no Julia Field autograph — real or not — is present in our Vol. 1 (or any of our volumes, for that matter).  How did we come to acquire Munn’s set No. 2 in 1952, only to have it replaced with a nearly identical, but differently numbered set in the intervening 62 years?

Our doubts about the Cruikshank Twain/Field autographs were only compounded by the discovery of these other volumes with similar inscriptions.  By finding this donation record in an old newsletter, we were able to move one link back in the chain of provenance, but many questions still remain about the authenticity of these signatures.

However, the somewhat ironic fact is that the notoriety of Eugene Field II has ended up adding some value to these works after all, even if the autographs are fakes.  A set of forged signatures would make an interesting collection in its own right!


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Found in the Vault: A Presentation Inscription from Mark Twain — Or is it?

“And thou, homely little brown thing with worn leaves, yet more precious to me than all jewels of the earth—come, let me take thee from thy shelf and hold thee lovingly in my hands and press thee tenderly to this aged and slow-pulsing heart of mine… soon must we part forever; when I am gone say unto him who next shall have thee to his own that with his latest breath an old man blessed thee!”

– Eugene Field, Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac

Okay, okay.  Last week I know I said we’d be talking about hand-colored plates this time — and that post is coming soon, I promise!  But in the meantime I wanted to highlight an interesting item we discovered (rediscovered?) in the vault just the other day:


MSU’s copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

This 1845 edition of Cruikshank at Home (Vol.  I), a collection of humorous short stories selected and illustrated by famed English caricature artist Robert Cruikshank, may seem at first glance to be rather unremarkable.

While it is beautifully half-bound in red Morocco leather, it stands at a modest six-and-a-half inches tall and tends to blend in with the books around it on the vault shelves, many of which are similarly bound and just as beautiful.

As the study of rare book provenance has shown again and again, however, often some the most interesting features of books can be found on flyleaves and endsheets — and our copy of Cruikshank at Home is no different in this regard.


Presentation inscription from Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain.

As you can see, the book bears a terse presentation inscription with a noteworthy signature on the front flyleaf:

Y[ou]r[s] Truly,
              S. L. Clemens
                     (Mark Twain)

Search on the Web for Mark Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) autograph and you’ll likely conclude that this is the real deal.  And why shouldn’t it be?

As in many institutions, our rare books contain signatures from a number of famous individuals, in the form of ownership inscriptions, presentation inscriptions, and the like.

But what else can we potentially learn about the provenance of this volume?

Close-up of the Clemens/Twain signature.

Close-up of the Clemens/Twain signature.

The book features another interesting signature on the half-title:  that of late 19th century American author and poet Eugene Field.  Based on the location and the appearance of the signature, it appears to be an ownership inscription, meaning that this book was likely in Field’s collection at some point.


Signature of Eugene Field, Sr.

It seems probable that the two signatures are related, and that the book was either given to Field by Twain, or that Field merely had Twain sign it (although since it’s not a work by Twain, the latter seems less likely).  The two authors were friends, or at least acquaintances, and it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to picture such a presentation taking place.


Note from Eugene Field, Jr.

Another piece of evidence in the book seems to corroborate this theory.  On a rear flyleaf is the following note:

This book came
from the library
of my father Eugene
          Eugene Field II
Oct 20 – 1920

So, everything seems to be peachy — we have a fine example of a presentation inscription from one of the most influential American authors of all time, in a book from the personal collection of another famous author, all supported by the testimony of the latter’s son.

But there’s another story to tell.  Do a little digging on Eugene Field II, and you’ll find a number of articles about him, including one from the website Crime Librarywhich is certainly enlightening:

The American poet Eugene Field passed down his unique gift of writing to his son and namesake, Eugene Field II, whom he affectionately nicknamed “Pinny.” However, unlike his father, little Eugene’s gift was less conventional. His skill was not in composing poetry but actually in reproducing the writing style of other people…

Yes, it turns out that Eugene Field, Jr. was a notorious forger, especially infamous for rather masterfully faking the signature of Abraham Lincoln, and making quite a tidy sum in the process.  In addition to selling a number of books and documents with false Lincoln signatures, “Pinny” dabbled in other forgeries.  An article from the Internet Antique Gazette explains:

[Eugene Field, Jr.] had grown up with a comfortable life in the suburbs of Chicago, and upon his father’s death, began casting about for ways to make money without doing much work. Eugene Sr. left… a sizeable library, filled with some rare editions and beautiful bindings, and Pinny began selling them off piecemeal for profit.  

As Pinny was quickly running through his father’s library, he began to dabble in forgeries, and sometime in the 1920s or early 1930s, he met up with forger Harry Dayton Sickles. The two quickly struck upon a plan to ‘increase’ Eugene Sr.’s library. They reproduced Eugene Sr.’s original bookplate, and then set about buying up books, forging signatures and inscriptions, and ‘authenticating’ them with the addition of the reproduced bookplates.

Uh oh.  Our volume may not have a bookplate, but things are certainly starting to look suspicious.  This next line — from the Crime Library article — may put the final nail in the coffin:

[Field and Sickles] were also known to have forged numerous documents and signatures of other famous figures such as, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as well as several others.

While it’s possible that our Twain inscription is authentic, it also seems as though we have good reason to question it.  Could it be that the young Field falsified the signature early in his forgery career, or that he or Sickles, partners in crime, faked it in the late ’20s or ’30s and simply back-dated the “authenticating” note on the rear flyleaf?

Was the book presented to Eugene Field, Sr. by his friend and colleague Mark Twain, or is the signature a forgery?  We don’t know — and we may never know.  The irony is that if this volume did not feature the note from Field’s son we likely would have never seriously questioned the autograph’s authenticity.

It just goes to show that often it’s better to have no one on your side at all than to have a liar’s endorsement — or, as William Caxton put it, “men bileve not lyghtly hym whiche is knowen for a lyer.”

What do you think?  Can anyone out there offer any insight into the validity of these signatures?

Credit for the excerpts from the Crime Library and Internet Antique Gazette articles goes to Hollie Davis and Rachael Bell, respectively.  Here are the two links again:
Crime Library:  Abraham Lincoln’s Most Notorious Forgers
Internet Antique Gazette:  Field, Eugene Sr. & Eugene Field, Jr. & Harry Dayton Sickles
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An Artistic Edge: Selected Fore-Edge Paintings at MSU Special Collections

As we have seen time and time again, one can learn a great deal by examining the various marks in books.  However, this study of rare book provenance often focuses on the primitive, mundane, or even ugly facets of book ownership.  Libraries and personal collectors do not generally stamp or inscribe their books to beautify them or to add value, but to mark the items as their property.  And many people, having been born into a centuries-old print culture, see handwritten annotations and marginalia as imperfect human elements marring the otherwise mechanical orderliness of a printed text.

I do not share this worldview, but of course I am biased by my interest in the potential value of these additions as provenance evidence.  However, there are some marks in books to which I suspect even the most ardent biblio-purist would not object — marks interesting not only for their historical value, but also for their artistic merit.

Throughout the long and varied history of the book, writers, binders, printers and publishers have embellished the products of their craft in a myriad of ways.  Early Medieval manuscripts were often meticulously illustrated, and bookmakers have been tooling, stamping, or painting designs onto book covers for centuries.  Even in the modern age of machine printing and mass production, there is a great demand for artisan books bound, decorated or illustrated by hand.

One of the most interesting and uncommon forms of book art, the form I will be exploring below, is the practice of fore-edge painting.  These rare instances of book adornment are the result of painting a design or a scene on the front edge of a book’s text block (the edge opposite the spine).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting remains relatively obscure, despite a recent revival in the practice, largely because the artwork is usually visible only when the book’s pages are fanned out.  In addition, most of these paintings (especially those from the 18th century onward) are hidden by gilded page edges.  Since fore-edge paintings typically remain invisible until the text block of the book is examined closely, and since each painting takes so much care and skill to produce, most people are unaware of this artistic tradition — even many bibliophiles and book dealers have never come across examples of these secret paintings.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Prior to the development of this art form, titles, shelf codes, or other identifying marks were often inked onto the fore-edges of books, so that the volumes could be easily identified when they were stacked on top of one another.  It is difficult to determine exactly when or where the practice of painting these edges began, although most scholars agree that the simplest form of “flat” fore-edge illustration likely became popular in late-15th or early-16th century Italy.

Regardless of the precise date the practice was invented, by the mid-17th century fore-edge painting had arrived in England, where bookmakers developed the technique of applying paint to fanned pages, so that the artwork would be hidden when the book was closed.  The practice continued to enjoy moderate popularity among England’s elite bookmakers and their patrons for a number of years, but by the end of the 17th century interest in fore-edge painting had waned, and few new works were created until the art’s revival nearly one hundred years later.

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU's 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU’s 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

The re-emergence of fore-edge painting as a popular art form in the late 18th century was largely due to the efforts of one English bookbinding and publishing company, Edwards of Halifax.  Although there were other fore-edge painters operating throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a surprising number of these artists did not sign their work, and it remains difficult to identify the creators of many paintings from this era.  Due to the sheer number of works that are traceable back to the Edwards firm, however, a great many unsigned pieces of fore-edge painting end up being attributed to them as well.

After the revival of fore-edge painting by Edwards of Halifax, the trade remained relatively popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.  A number of artists and bookbinders made their names creating beautiful fore-edge paintings, most often in the English style of “hidden” painting on fanned pages.  As the art form grew in popularity it evolved into more complex forms, and by the early 20th century paintings were even being done on both sides of the fore-edge (so that one painting would be visible if you fanned the pages one direction, and another if you fanned them the other way), on all three edges of the book (head, tail, and for-edge), or both.  Even in these elaborate cases the book’s edges were usually gilded, hiding all artwork from casual inspection.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges -- completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU's 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges — completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU’s 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

The range of subject matter for these paintings also grew as the art form evolved.   Early fore-edge paintings were of mostly pastoral scenes, but by the 20th century artists were producing paintings for a much wider audience, and had to adapt to the current Zeitgeist and the ever-changing demands of collectors.  Vignettes included depictions of historical or mythical events, sports scenes, cityscapes, and more.  Of course, some fore-edge paintings were added by collectors themselves, and the themes of many paintings often matched the subject matter of the host books.

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train.  On MSU's copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train. On MSU’s copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London.  From MSU's 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London. From MSU’s 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral behind.  On MSU's 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral behind. On MSU’s 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

The renaissance of fore-edge painting in the 18th century by Edwards of Halifax pales in comparison to the latest, 20th century revival of the art.  Most modern artists, however, rather than adding their art to contemporary works, instead paint on the fore-edges of old books — often from the 18th or 19th century.  This can make it difficult to date a fore-edge painting through a cursory visual examination alone, and many unsigned and undated paintings can fool even a trained eye.  Worse still, this ambiguity is often deliberate, perpetrated with the intent to defraud collectors.

Thankfully the reputable modern artists seem to outnumber the fraudulent, and it is these known artists who are largely responsible for making the practice popular again in the 20th century.  Chief among these, at least in the first half of the century, was the prolific fore-edge painter Miss C. B. Currie, who produced a series of signed and dated paintings for Sotheran’s of London.  Martin Frost, another modern day fore-edge artist, produced a great deal of signed and dated work in the latter half of the 20th century and still creates fore-edge paintings today.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU's 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott's The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815).  Artist unknown.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU’s 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815). Artist unknown.

Even with the recent “second renaissance” of fore-edge painting, the art form remains relatively unknown and misunderstood.  However, a number of institutions, such as the Boston Public Library, maintain large, beautiful collections of fore-edge painted books from every era, and several artisan bookbinders working today still produce their own fore-edge paintings.

With the help of some outspoken rare book dealers and special collections libraries, this centuries-old trade is finally, slowly working its way back into the public’s awareness.  And I think nearly everyone — even those who would normally cringe at the sight of a marked-up book — can admire the products of this unique craft, tragically under-appreciated in the history of book arts.

Two scenes on a single fore-edge.  This painting only takes up half of the text block -- up to page 248 or so.  Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction.  From MSU's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

Two scenes on a single fore-edge. This painting only takes up half of the text block — up to page 248 or so. Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction. From MSU’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559.  All together, MSU's copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559. All in all, MSU’s copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

For more information on the art of fore-edge painting, see the Boston Public Library’s articles on fore-edge painting and the website of modern fore-edge artist Martin Frost.  Also be sure to check out these previously undocumented fore-edge paintings recently discovered by Special Collections & Archives staff at the University of Iowa!  (original UI Special Collections Tumblr post here)

Does anyone out there recognize the artists of any of our fore-edge paintings?  Has anyone had a chance to see a work like this in person?  Leave a comment below!

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Provenance Project Update

We’re back after an especially long Fall hiatus.  Next week I’m going to have quite an interesting update for you, a unique presentation inscription with importance for literary scholars.  We’ll also be looking at how a little research can sometimes allow us to reconstruct a nearly complete chain of custody for a rare book, even if we only have a single piece of provenance evidence to go on.  I had hoped to have that post ready for you this week, but first there’s a little more work that needs to be done.

In the meantime, it’s time for an update on the current state of MSU’s Special Collections Provenance Project.  When I started working with MSU Special Collections staff to develop a system for uncovering and recording the provenance evidence of the books in their vault, I was tasked with writing a handbook for future Special Collections librarians and student employees to use.  It’s been an ongoing project in and of itself over the past several months, informed by hands-on experience with a wide range of interesting books, and in turn informing how we investigate provenance moving forward.  I’m pleased to report that the manual is about 95% complete, and will likely be published by the library before the month is out!

Here are some sample pages (All images and their textual content © 2013 Andrew Tenopir-Lundeen and/or Michigan State University):

Handbook Cover

Handbook Page iii

Handbook Page 19

When it’s completed, several copies will reside in Special Collections to aid staff in continuing the provenance work begun earlier this year.  I’m pleased with how far the Special Collections Provenance Project has come in such a short time!

If updates on the Provenance Handbook aren’t enough to tide you over until next week’s more substantial update, here are a couple of fun doodles found in books in the Special Collections vault to keep you interested:

Doodle 1This drawing of a partridge (humorously misspelled and then partially corrected by the artist) can be found in MSU’s copy of Machiavels Discovrses from 1636 (XX JC143.M163 1636).  Perhaps its creator was a Mr. Partridge himself?  Do you think there might be any higher purpose in this doodle, or is it merely the result of boredom?  Is there any clue as to a possible date for the drawing?  What could we learn based on the handwriting style or the fading ink?

Doodle 2What about this illustration of a woman, found on one of the front endpapers of MSU’s The Vale-royall of England, or, The county palatine of Chester illustrated (XX folio DA670.C6 K5 1656)?  Can you say anything about the medium of this drawing?  Is there anything we can say about its possible date?  Whether or not these drawings give us any useful information about the provenance of these particular volumes, they do illustrate  a fairly common feature in book ownership, and they show us that in some sense, people haven’t changed all that much.

See you next week!

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What is Provenance?

“When one thinks how much research in the humanities is based upon… documents that once belonged to private persons or institutions… it can safely be state that detailed provenance research is far more than an innocent pastime for booklovers: it is an essential part of a critical approach to the sources used.”

– Pierre Delsaerdt, Bibliophily and Public-Private Partnership

Provenance refers to the chain of custody of a historical object, the trajectory of its ownership from its creation to the present day.  In the world of rare books, documenting a volume’s provenance can often tell us a great deal about the work’s production, distribution, and the ways in which it was read and used.  A detailed provenance record can shed light on historical periods and figures, giving us crucial insight into the habits of readers, the popularity of particular works and genres, and the history of the book and book trade.  Provenance evidence can also help us determine a rare book’s authenticity, and often adds to the value of the book, particularly if it comes in the form of a signature from a historically important personage.

Bookplate on MSU's copy of The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis - PA6447.E5 D7 1697

Bookplate (dated 1703) in MSU’s copy of The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (PA6447.E5 D7 1697)

Book creators, owners, and readers often leave a variety of clues behind that we can use to trace the history of a particular copy.  Individuals and institutions mark their ownership in a number of ways, including bookplates (ownership labels, usually pasted inside the front cover), autographs, ink stamps, and so on.  In addition, we can frequently learn something about the provenance of a volume through incidental markings, such as marginalia (marginal notes), bookseller price codes, and other inscriptions.

Bookseller note hidden in a margin of MSU's M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515). Note the date, bookseller name, and price.

Note hidden in a margin of MSU’s M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515). Note the date, bookseller name, and price.

It’s not always easy to decide which markings are important for determining provenance.  Bookplates, autographs, and particularly interesting marginal notes are clearly examples of provenance evidence, even if we don’t know enough at first to decipher them.

Sometime in the last 214 years, this fly met his unfortunate demise between two pages of MSU's The letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero (PA6308.E5 M4 1799 v.2). Could this conceivably give us any insight into the book's provenance? Why or why not?

Sometime in the last 214 years, this fly met his unfortunate demise between two pages of MSU’s The letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero (PA6308.E5 M4 1799 v.2). Could this conceivably give us any insight into the book’s provenance? Why or why not?

But what about a seemingly random series of numbers penciled in the margin of the rear pastedown endsheet?  What about illegible scribbles or stray marks on a page?  When in doubt, should we record everything we see just in case it might mean something?  And what about unusual physical features of a book, such as the burned corner of a text block or water-damaged pages?  In theory, unique characteristics such as these could help tie a particular volume to a known historical event, providing valuable clues to the book’s ownership history.

In the next post, we’ll be exploring more questions like these, and working through a few examples.  In the meantime, leave some comments below.  What do you think about provenance?  Is it something you had seriously thought about before?  What sorts of things do you think are important to record in order to determine a book’s chain of ownership?

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