CHICAGO – As co-publishers and editors of Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine, established in 1991, Robin and Kathryn Smiley’s bookshelves were brimming with choice first editions from across the broad span of British and American literature. The 382-lot sale of their library offered at Potter & Potter Auctions on August 17 totaled $516,000.
Among the earliest American firsts in the sale was an 1833 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Described as “an exceptional copy complete and uncut in original boards,” it hammered for $16,000 ($20,000 including the buyer’s premium).
By the late 19th century, American editions could follow UK and European printings in a matter of months, but this Carey, Lea & Blanchard (Philadelphia) two-volume printing of Frankenstein came years after the first edition was published anonymously in London in January 1818. Shelley’s name first appeared in the second edition published in Paris in 1821, with the story’s first theatrical adaptation watched by the author in 1823. The first US edition features a misspelling of the author’s surname as Shelly on the title page.
Estimated at $10,000-$15,000 and sold at $20,000 ($25,000 including the buyer’s premium) was a first American edition, first state copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or There and Back Again in its original jacket. It was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1938, less than a year after it was issued by Allen & Unwin in the UK in September 1939. The story goes that Paul Brooks of Houghton Mifflin, later to be named editor-in-chief, “fell for Mr Bilbo Baggins and his crew” despite negative criticism from others he consulted. Anxious to “veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose work I have a heartfelt loathing),” Tolkien provided a series of new illustrations for the project, two of which were reproduced on the dust jacket. Today it is very rare: fewer have survived than the classic UK first edition jacket.
The first state of the US edition is distinctive for the image of what’s known as the ‘bowing hobbit’ on the title page (that was replaced by a publisher’s device in the second state) while the endpapers are bound opposite the List of Illustrations.
Easily earning top-lot status in the Smiley sale was an early copy of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, from 1870 (it was first published in 1869). A good rather than pristine copy, it was elevated by a 1906 inscription from its pseudonymous author that included one of his famed aphorisms: ‘Do your duty to-day and repent tomorrow. Truly yours, Mark Twain.’ Estimated at $15,000-$20,000, it hammered for $50,000 ($62,500 including the buyer’s premium).
Sold for $12,000 ($15,000 including the buyer’s premium) was a 1960 first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Not only did it include the first issue jacket, with the photo of Lee credited to Truman Capote, it was offered with a note from Harper Lee to the Smileys, dated January 1, 1997, thanking them for a complimentary copy of Firsts and including a check for a subscription. “I’m not a collector (of anything) but I have, as you may guess, great interest in books. Firsts is absolutely first-rate!” she wrote. The Smileys did not cash the check, signed with her full name Nelle Harper Lee, so that, too, was also included in the lot.