Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Scarce True First Edition Of Jefferson's Notes On Virginia $100K-$150K

by Stephen J. Gertz


A copy of the true first edition of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1782, i.e. 1785), one of only 200 that Jefferson had printed for private circulation among his friends and acquaintances, is coming to auction at Christie's-NY December 6, 2013 in its Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana sale. This copy, which includes text and appendices not present in all copies, is estimated to sell for $100,000-$150,000.

The book, Jefferson’s detailed account of his home state of Virginia, is “a classic statement about the promise and the perils of the American experiment” (Frank Shuffeton). The Notes reflect Jefferson's broad interests, i.e. everything. Embracing topography, natural history, botany, mineral and agricultural productions, manufactures, ethnography, religion, commerce and government, plus a pioneering bibliography of state papers, little about Virginia escapes his notice.

Jefferson began the work in the spring of 1781 in response to inquiries from the Marquis de BarbĂ© Marbois, Secretary of the French Legation in Philadelphia, on behalf of the French government. Marbois’s queries were forwarded by a Virginia delegate in Congress, Joseph Jones, to Jefferson, the soon-to-be ex-governor.

In May 1781 Jefferson told Marbois that he would provide “as full information as I shall be able to do” (Papers, 5:58), when he had time to fully attend to it.  For many years Jefferson had been “making memoranda about Virginia on loose sheets," and when his term as governor ended he returned to Monticello and dove into the project. By December he'd sent Marbois a draft, advising that it was “very imperfect” (Papers, 6:142).

Over the next two years, Jefferson expanded the notes and sent manuscript copies to a few friends for comment. After embarking for Paris as U.S. Minister, he concluded “I may have a few copies struck off in Paris.” Jefferson hired Parisian printer Philippe-Denis Pierres to produce it.

From Paris, in May 1785, he wrote to James Madison that Pierres “yesterday finished printing my notes. I had 200 copies printed, but do not put them out of my own hands, except two or three copies here, and two which I shall send to America, to yourself and Colo. Monroe...” (Papers, 8:147).

Two years later, in 1787, he authorized his London bookseller, John Stockdale, to publish for general sale a somewhat expanded edition of the work. The last copy in decent condition of that edition sold in 2009 for $18,000 at Sotheby's-NY.

As for this, the true first edition, a copy was last seen at auction earlier this year at Christie's-NY June 21, 2013. Inscribed by Jefferson to David S. Franks, it sold for $150,000. Curiously, that same copy sold seven months earlier at Christie's-NY December 7, 2012 for $260,000. In 2010, The Samuel L.M. Barlow copy, inscribed to Mr. Dalrymple, sold at Sotheby's in 2010 for $300,000.

This copy is in descent from its original owner, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), the eminent Philadelphia physician, botanist, and naturalist, with Jefferson's inscription on the verso of the titlepage. It was then in the possession of Edward Harris (his signature at top margin of title-page). From Harris, the book became part of the Jefferson collection of T[homas]. .J[efferson]. Coolidge (1831-1912), great-grandson of the President, a successful businessman who served as United States Minister to France during President Benjamin Harrison's administration, 1889-1893.

Also included in the sale is a signed autograph letter from Jefferson at Monticello dated February 1823 wherein he testifies that copies of Notes on Virginia "are now very rarely found." The letter is anticipated to hammer at $50,000-$70,000. 

It reads in full:

Mssrs. Parsons & Cooley     Monticello Feb. 14. 23.

I have received your favor of Jan. 29 in which you are pleased to request a copy of my works to be deposited in your library. I have never published any work but the Notes on Virginia, of which I have but a single copy, and they are now very rarely to be found. All other writings of mine have been of an official character, and are only to be found among the public documents of the times in which I have lived. TO show however my respect for your request you have been pleased to make, I select one of these, the subject of which is not altogether foreign to institutions like yours, and which was so little adhered by the body for whom it was prepared, that I may truly call it a work of mine. This is a Report on the plan of the university in Virginia, which is now nearly completed, and in the course of a year or two will commence its operations. With this be pleased to accept the assurance of my highest respect & consideration.

Th. Jefferson

This letter was last seen at auction on November 14, 2010 when it fell under the hammer at Skinners for $59,250.

UPDATE: This, the Benjamin Smith Barton copy of the true first edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, sold for $220,000.

JEFFERSON, Thomas (1743-1826). Notes on the State of Virginia: written in the year 1781, somewhat corrected and enlarged in the winter of 1782, for the use of a Foreigner of distinction, in answer to certain queries proposed by him.... [Paris: Philippe-Denis Pierres for the author], 1782 [i.e., 1785]. 

First edition, one of only 200 copies printed for private circulation among Jefferson’s friends and acquaintances. With the appendix and additional texts not present in all copies. Octavo (7¬ x 5 in.). Folding table between pp.168 and 169, full-page woodcut of Madison’s Cave on page [35]. Leaves D2 and D3 cancelled.

Bound with an appendix (pp.367-391) containing notes on American Indian tribes by Charles Thomson (1729-1824); Jefferson’s “Draught of a Fundamental Constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” 14pp; and “An Act for establishing Religious Freedom passed in the assembly of Virginia in the beginning of the year 1786,” 4pp.

Contemporary mottled French calf, gilt spine, red morocco spine label, marbled edges, marbled endpapers (front cover nearly detached, joints, corners and board edges rubbed).

Provenance: Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), the eminent Philadelphia physician and scientist; inscription on verso of title; Edward Harris (signature at top margin of title-page); T.J. Coolidge, bookplate.

Sabin 35894. Howes J-78.

Read the full text of Jefferson's original manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia, part of the Thomas Jefferson Papers Electronic Archive of the Coolidge Collection in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Image courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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