Rediscovered Gold Rush sketchbook earns $25K at UK auction

Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000

Colored double-page maritime drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, $25,000

LONDON – A previously unknown sketchbook of watercolors and pencil drawings relating to the California Gold Rush and the famous Forty Niners sold at auction on August 4 for $25,000. The 76-page document records the places and characters seen by the amateur artist and adventurer Joseph Goldsborough Bruff (American, 1804-1889) as part of an expedition to California from 1849-1851.

Head of rare books and manuscripts at Chiswick Auction Clive Moss said, “The book was brought to Chiswick Auctions by a private seller in June this year and it was bought by a member of the book trade, probably on behalf of an institution, although we cannot confirm that.”

Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000

Colored portrait from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook from his Gold Rush-era trip to California, $25,000

Born in Washington, DC, Joseph Goldsborough Bruff attended West Point from 1820-1833 but was forced to resign after engaging in a duel. Instead he worked variously as an itinerant seaman, a draftsman and cartographer and – following the news that gold had been found in the West – the organizer of the Washington City and California Mining Association. His 1849 expedition had followed the Lassen Trail before disbanding. Bruff spent a difficult winter in the Sierra Nevadas before visiting California’s gold country, making drawings of geographic landmarks, mining camps and scenes which piqued his interest.

 Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000


Colored double-page seascape drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook, rendered during his trip to California from 1849-1851, $25,000

The many signed and annotated drawings in the 19 by 26cm (7.4 by 10.2in) sketchbook, which contains 17 portraits and nine maritime and coastal scenes, correspond closely with those held by the Huntington Library. The names and places are mentioned throughout Bruff’s journal that was published by the Columbia University Press in 1949.

 Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000


Whimsical colored portraits and observational drawings from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s 1849-1851 California trip sketchbook, $25,000

Some of the costume studies and South American scenes in the book are signed by WH Gatliff – a reference to another competent watercolorist Bruff met while in the West Indies.

In Bruff’s diary entry dated February 13 [1849], Trinidad, he wrote: “Clear and cool. Made the acquaintance of Dr Gatliff, a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, and a talented artist. We walked together and made some sketches.”

 Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000


Colored drawing from Joseph Goldsborough Bruff’s sketchbook dating to his trip to California from 1849-1851, peak Gold Rush years, $25,000

Collections of Bruff’s work are held by the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, Yale University Library and the Smithsonian. Although his works do occasionally come up for auction, the auctioneers could find no records for such significant material relating to the Gold Rush.