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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

A High Horse and a Teller of Tales

The Teller of Tales

Autograph draft of sections of In the South Seas… by Robert Louis Stevenson, $80,500 at Christie’s New York on December 3, and Treasure Island, $9,600 at PBA Galleries of San Francisco on January 6.

Autograph draft manuscript of Stevenson’s In the South Seas. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Before embarking on the South Pacific travels that he hoped would restore his ever fragile health, Stevenson agreed to write a series of letters for serial publication. A growing fascination with the folklore, customs, peoples, and even the politics of the islands led him to settle in Samoa, where the natives dubbed him Tusitala, or Teller of Tales, and he decided instead to turn his experiences into a book.

Stevenson began composing chapters whilst still voyaging on the steamer, Janet Nicoll, in 1889-90, but life in the South Seas improved his health for a time and he also managed to write such works as Catriona (the sequel to Kidnapped), Island Nights’ Entertainments, The Ebb-Tide, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston. So it was not until 1896, two years after his death at Vailima, his Samoan home, that the first edition of In the South Seas was published.

Frontispiece from an 1883 first issue of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Courtesy of PBA Galleries.

Now, over a century later, an extensively revised and corrected manuscript, significant portions of which are likely to have been his first drafts and some smaller parts of which are unpublished, has emerged. As a lifelong Stevenson fan, this New York manuscript was a must for my column, and a Californian sale of a few weeks later gives me a chance to include a copy of the tale that fired my love of Stevenson.

Seen here is the famous frontispiece map from Treasure Island. It comes from an 1883 first issue in the original sage cloth, and though the price is far from being an auction record, I simply could not resist the opportunity to set sail again with Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and the rest of Stevenson’s goodies and baddies.

As to the record, a very fine copy in the Irwin Silver library sold for $26,400 in 2005 at Sotheby’s New York, but in the previous year the same rooms had seen an “unopened” copy reach $31,200. But then “unopened” means no use of the paper knife on the untrimmed edges, and thus unread—and I find that almost an insult to such an immortal tale, and somehow unworthy of a record holder.

Staking the Hudson Bay Company Claims

Manuscript map of Nova Britannia, by John Thornton, £203,150 ($322,095) at Lawrences of Crewkerne on January 17.

Hand-colored map of Nova Britannia, drafted by John Thornton (1641-1708). Courtesy of Lawrences of Crewkerne.

Found in the attics of the House of Glennie, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where it had lain undisturbed for many years, this still brightly colored and well preserved vellum map is dated 1699. It is signed by John Thornton (1641-1708), a member of the Thames School of map and chart makers who also worked as a hydrographer for both the English East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company.

After the sale, the buyer, UK map specialist Daniel Crouch, told a colleague of mine on the weekly Antiques Trade Gazette, “John Thornton was the main supplier of maps to the Hudson’s Bay Company in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th century, drafting 10 or 11 maps and charts to the company between 1680 and 1702.”

Comparison with an earlier map of Hudson’s Bay by Thornton, now in the British Library, had showed this map to be in the same hand, and Crouch’s own research into the Hudson Bay Company archives revealed committee minutes for 1700 that record a payment of £3 to Thornton for two “mapps of Hudson’s Bay” [sic]. These were used to illustrate company claims and assert its rights at a time when the French were disputing the company’s proprietorship of all the shores and immediate territory of Hudson and James Bays.

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