How we cracked the cold case of a book missing from the rare books department of a major institution.
The first few weeks of the year are traditionally a time when people seek to sell books. People are on the move, or they’ve decided to clean out the kids’ room, library, or the shed. In some cases people have to make decisions about what to do with the books belonging to their parents or grandparents as they move into assisted living. Sadly others are taking the advantage of the summer break to deal with the estate of a loved one who died – either recently or in the distant past – their books gathering dust in homes that now have to be sold. A death in our own family just before Christmas made fielding the post Christmas enquiries all the more poignant this year. The shop was quiet, as fewer people browse our shelves through January, but the phone rang constantly with offers of everything from crime fiction through to the classics. This is a good time of year for us to replenish general stock, and if we are lucky, sometimes something truly interesting will come across the counter.
And so it came to pass. In the second week of January we were offered an old and rare book. Sydney Illustrated, by John Skinner Prout, published in 1843, is one of the earliest pictorial records made of Sydney. I was contacted late last year by a gentleman looking to sell and I anticipated examining the book with some excitement. However there is a saying in the antiquarian book profession: If it seems too good to be true it probably is, and I repeated this grounding mantra while I waited for the book to arrive. The day the gentleman brought it in we were experiencing an unusually (for January) busy moment and he was happy to leave it with us, together with a handful of other old books. I told him that on the face of it the book could have some value and repeated that I was looking forward to looking at it closely. Then I asked him about its provenance – could he tell me how he acquired it? Did it come down through the family, or was he an avid collector? He was unwilling to answer and when gently pressed he said evasively, ‘I got it from a guy’. With my ‘dodge-factor’ radar tuned high I put the book aside for a quieter moment.
In our correspondence the gentleman had alerted me to the fact that there was a library stamp in the book. I discussed this with a colleague prior to seeing it and planned to make sure the book had been de-accessioned from whichever institution had originally held it. It’s fair to say the book was not in the best condition. It was complete, but it had come into contact with water. The boards were very poor and there were damp stains throughout, though not on the plates themselves, from which the book derives a deal of its value. In fine condition it would be a five-figure book (one sold at auction last year for $35,000), but serious collectors would not spend five figures on it in its present condition. I mentally dialled my potential offer down, considering whether it may still have appeal to someone. I started weighing up the re-casing versus original binding arguments in my head and got on with my research, focussing on the library stamp. The stamp at the front was small and discreet and had been applied to each plate in the book. Unequivocally the book had, at some point, been the property of the Sydney Free Public Library.
A more experienced bookseller would have known immediately that the Sydney Free Public Library was the antecedent of The State Library of New South Wales, but I had to look more closely to find this out. While the stamp at the front read Sydney Free Public Library the stamps on each plate read Public Library of N.S.W. Once I established this I checked the SLNSW online catalogue and found other copies of Prout in their holdings, but none that exactly matched the one in my hands, and none listed online as ‘missing’. Nevertheless the historical significance of the book, its relative scarcity, and the potential seller’s apparent reluctance to reveal his source, led me to keep asking questions. I emailed the library, let them know what I was handling, and said I wanted to check whether it had belonged to them previously and if so did they have a record of letting it go.
The librarians were quick to respond, and it transpired after an exchange of emails, sending of photographs and speaking on the phone, that the book did in fact still belong to the State Library of New South Wales. They had a clear record of it going missing from their rare book collection in May 1990. They sent us a letter of claim asking us to hold the book on their behalf and to put the potential seller in touch with them. All of which we did and there the story may have ended, except the potential seller was not happy to let it end in this way. He turned up to our shop with a letter demanding the books be returned to his self and threatening police action if we refused. We refused, and the conversation got a little loud and a little heated and eventually Hamish showed the gentleman the door, encouraging him to make good on his threat to involve the police. For those of you who don’t know our shop, we are situated right next door to the Charlotte Street police station.
And so it came to pass. Thirty minutes later the police came and took the books into their possession. They contacted the State Library of New South Wales, and the matter was resolved in the library’s favour. A day later we received the loveliest phone call of thanks from the head rare books librarian, for going ‘over and above’ the call of duty. We just did what we thought was right. Since then things have quietened down again, but we’ve been aglow with the good feeling of a job well done, and from cracking book-sleuthing jokes (I’m the sleuth, Hamish is the strong-arm).
Those of you reading closely at the beginning might be wondering about the ‘handful of other old books’ the gentleman left with the Prout. Four of them were also ex-Sydney Free Public Library and were first editions of Cook’s second and third voyages. Unfortunately these were all incomplete and the second voyage volumes in particular were broken and had been ‘farmed’ for the prints. And yes, these were also missing from the library’s collection. We have not heard from the potential seller since. He no doubt acquired the books through some legitimate salvage operation, but his early caginess and later bluster did not serve him well. We bear him no ill will and can only hope he learned something valuable for his future dealings.