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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Opening Gambit

A March sale at Forum Auctions promises rare letters and unique manuscripts. By Erin McPherson Erin McPherson is a writer and editor based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is an amateur collector of hardbound Dickens.

Every other month, London-based Forum Auctions hosts a Fine Books, Manuscripts, and Works on Paper sale at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair. Since 2016, Forum has curated fine books sales both in place and online, specializing in antiquarian books and manuscripts, as well as Old Master prints, drawings, and other works on paper. The company’s March 28 sale will feature a wide array of books across collecting spectrums, as well as some very interesting manuscripts and letters.

Pictorial title page of Greco’s chess manuscript (1620). Courtesy of Forum Auctions.
Chess manuscript with gilt French binding (1620). Courtesy of Forum Auctions.
Unpublished letter from Charles Darwin (1879). Courtesy of Forum Auctions.
Edward Wilson letter from the Terra Nova Expedition (1910). Courtesy of Forum Auctions.

A highlight, according to Forum book specialist Max Hasler, is a chess manuscript written by Gioachino Greco in 1620. An Italian, Greco was one of the earliest professional chess players, yet very little is known about him, and his writings are very rare. Hasler said Greco was one of the first to discuss moves and write chess games down in the way that we now know chess to be played. With an estimated value of $26,000-38,500, the manuscript represents a particularly rare piece of history.

“There are very few chess manuscripts of any kind,” Hasler said. “It’s rare to have one from the nineteenth century, but seventeenth century chess manuscripts are mostly unheard of on the open market. So this is a fairly extraordinary item.”

The 120-page manuscript is written in Italian by a scribal hand—not in Greco’s own handwriting—and was likely produced as an instruction manual for a wealthy chess enthusiast. In addition to the pictorial title page depicting an angel holding two chess pieces, the manuscript also boasts seventeenth century gilt calf binding.

Another noteworthy item at the Fine Books sale is an unpublished letter by Charles Darwin to his cousin Reginald, written in 1879—three years before Darwin’s death. The letter, which is estimated at $15,500-23,000, is three-and-a-half pages long and is an uncommon example of Darwin’s personal life. In it, he expresses a “chief object to contradict flatly some calumnies by Miss Seward,” likely referring to Anna Seward’s 1804 book, in which she undercuts the legacy of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus.

“This letter is a fresh discovery for the market,” Hasler said. “There is a large body of Darwin collectors across the world, which will probably be excited by the more family-focused nature of this communication, which we don’t often see in his writings.”

An additional piece of correspondence that will be at Forum’s March sale is a letter from Edward Wilson, an English physician, natural historian, and polar explorer who undertook two expeditions to Antarctica—most notably the Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Scott in 1910-1913, during which the group studied Emperor penguins and collected important research that contributes to our understanding of the animals today. Tragically, Wilson, Scott, and three others of their party died of frostbite on their return journey, but the letter, according to Hasler, provides insight into Wilson’s explorer mentality.

The letter (estimated at $1,900-2,600) is dated March 15, 1910—the start of Wilson’s fateful journey—and is written in response to well-wishing schoolchildren who have requested photos of the expedition dogs.

“He thanks them for their encouragement,” Hasler said, “and writes back to them saying ‘don’t you think it would be much more educational if I send you a picture of a penguin?’”

These works will feature alongside many others in Forum’s March sale, including a signature and framed photograph of Oscar Wilde, and various high spot works of literature.

Learn more at Forum Auctions.
Erin McPherson is a writer and editor based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is an amateur collector of hardbound Dickens.