Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Herman Melville's Travel Desk Comes to Auction

by Stephen J. Gertz

Call it Ishmael.

Today, June 22, 2011, Bonham's - NY is auctioning Herman Melville's travel desk. Those wishing to harpoon it will have to lay out a lot of blubber. It is estimated to sell for $20,000 - $30,000.

This brass-mounted mahogany traveling lap-desk dates from the third quarter of the 19th century. Its rectangular top opens to a hinged brown velvet-lined writing surface with fitted compartments and a pen well. The lid interior possesses a red leather folio with brass securing clips, and the writing surface lifts to reveal a storage well and removable guard concealing three secret drawers. The sides have brass bale handles.

Enclosed within the desk are a gilt-metal-mounted agate snuff box, two small pen knives, one inscribed "E M Marett," a molded glass inkwell with associated cap, a pair of tweezers, a glass intaglio seal engraved "EMM," and a gilt-metal and mother-of-pearl pen.

The interior of the lid is mounted with caricature prints, and two period small yellow sheets inscribed "Our Box at the Post Office is 1162" and "Herman Melville / 104 East 26th St / New York" respectively.

Herman Melville came into possession of this small writing desk through Ellen Martha Marett Gifford, whose name is inscribed on the pen knife and whose initials are engraved on the glass intaglio included among the desk's effects. Gifford (d.1889) was Elizabeth Melville's cousin, a life-long correspondent of the Melville's and, later in life, the couple's benefactor.

In 1886, aided in part by a generous gift from Ellen and by inheritances from Ellen's mother, Martha, and Elizabeth's brother, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., Melville was able to retire from his long-held position at the New York Custom-House. In his final years, he privately published two volumes of poems: John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timleon (1891); and began Billy Budd which he worked on until his death.

Melville found time to travel in his retirement and it  appears, from the presence of his ownership labels, that the desk traveled with him. He fortuitously avoided the Great Blizzard of 1888 when he journeyed abroad to Bermuda (returning by way of Florida); and the following year he spent a fortnight with friends in Savannah.

Melville occupied the house at 104 East 26th St. from 1863 until his death in 1891.

6/26/2011 UPDATE: Sold for $34,160, incl. buyer's premium.


  1. The labels are in Melville's handwriting. How might one contact the purchaser of this item?

    1. All I can suggest is to contact Bonham's, though it's unlikely that they will reveal the buyer.


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