Frank Streeter Collection
by William S. Reese
Frank Sherwin Streeter was a book collector for forty years,
from around 1966 until his death in 2006.
Over that time he formed a wonderful collection of books, pamphlets and
maps on the exploration of the Pacific and the
In some ways it is surprising that Frank became a book
collector at all; standard texts on children rebelling against their parents
would predict the opposite. Frank’s
father, Thomas W. Streeter, was
without doubt the greatest
When Thomas W. Streeter
died in 1965, he required his executors to sell his books at auction, or at
least those that were deemed worthy of individual lots.
First, though, he left each of his children their choice of a book from
his collection as a remembrance. One
of Frank’s brothers chose a non-book object instead, while his sister took
an inscribed copy of Henry Thoreau’s A
Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers (
The Thomas W. Streeter
sale, held at Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1966-69, was a landmark in every way.
It was the greatest book sale held in the
With the Warre as a catalyst and his father’s sale offering
a string of treasures in extensive sessions every six months, Frank took the
next step in collecting and started bidding.
It is impossible to tell what his first purchase was with certainty,
because later in his career Frank bought a number of books which had belonged
to his father as well as those he actually acquired at the auction.
Forty-one books with TWS sale provenance eventually appeared in the FSS
sale. It seems unlikely that he
bid at the first two sessions, but at the third session in October, 1967 an
astute observer (Archibald Hanna of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript
Library, who had negotiated the purchase of Thomas Streeter’s famed Texas
collection for Yale) spotted him as the successful bidder on three lots;
William Bullock, Sketch Of A Journey
Through The Western States… (
At this point Frank, a methodical businessman, must have
given the whole business some serious reflection.
If he was going to be a book collector, as seemed to be happening, what
did he really want to collect? His father’s overarching theme was the idea
of Americana Beginnings – the earliest books about, or printed in,
In the fourth session, in April, 1968, the Thomas Streeter
sale reached Pacific Voyages (the whole sale catalogue is arranged topically).
This time Frank was systematic. He
retained the services of Michael Walsh of Goodspeed’s Book Shop in
It was another year before more major Pacific voyages came up
at the sixth session of the sale in April of 1969.
By this time Frank had evidently further refined his focus to be “the
exploration for a
By the end of the Thomas Streeter sale, Frank was firmly
established as a collector. In the
fall 1969 he bought a group of Arctic voyages from the English dealer Frank
Hammond, acquired more American travels at the stock dispersal sale of the
1970 brought widespread recognition of Frank’s seriousness
as a collector, no doubt aided by being the son of Thomas W.
Streeter. In that year he
was elected to the nation’s leading association of book collectors, New
York’s Grolier Club, in which he was active for the rest of his life, and
President of from 1982-85. He was
also elected to the Walpole Society, from which so many happy associations in
his life sprang (his brother Henry was elected in 1974).
In the spring of 1971 he was elected to the American Antiquarian
Society, and within a few years he became active in support of, and later on
the boards of, the John Carter Brown Library and the New-York Historical
In 1971 the
Ultimately Frank’s library contained twenty of the 366
books offered at Penrose. (Note 8,
See FSS sale 49, 133, 198, 260, 280, 322, 327, 335, 249, 381, 391, 428,
433, 465, 471, 474, 483, 491, 515, 532). Some
of these were bought from Nebenzahl after the fact, but most, including all of
the important ones, were bought with Ken bidding as his agent at the sale
itself. The first book up was the
most important, Peter Martyr, The
Decades Of The New Worlde Or
The period from 1970 to 1975 marked the height of Frank’s
collecting. In 1972 and 1974
respectively he purchased the Samuel Champlain’s Voyages… (
In 1974 another sale loomed.
Harrison D. Horblit, a
Harvard man from slightly before Frank’s era, was another collector whose
love of the sea had first led him into collecting maritime and navigational
books. By the 1970s his interests
had expanded broadly, and he had become one of the pioneer collectors of the
history of science and of photography (Note 7, See Grolier
2000…, pp.153-156). He
decided to sell some of his navigational books at Sotheby’s in
The two sessions of the Horblit sale were possibly Frank’s
finest hour as a book collector, as he reached high against strong competition
for some very important books, and spent more money (judged against the market
and inflation) than he did on any other occasion.
There is no telling what might have happened if the Horblit sales had
continued, but Horblit, who felt his books should have done better (they did
very well for the time) and who didn’t need the money in any event (it was
widely felt he put the sale on simply to demonstrate what an astute collector
he had been) decided not to sell any more after the letter “G”.
Some of the books later came on the market through H.P.
Kraus, but most of the important ones were ultimately given to Harvard,
a result Frank would not have quarreled with in any event.
As with the Penrose books, the Horblit group was a significant part of
Frank’s final sale, also realizing about an eighth of the final result.
(Note 9 Students of comparative valuation will be interested in the
statistics of the three primary sales which contributed to the building of
Frank’s collection. The
books from the TWS sale of 1966-69 realized 22.12 times as much at the FSS
sale. However, if one excludes The Atlantic Neptune,
which distorts the sample by its size, and which he bought long after the
fact, the ratio is 26.29 times. The
books from the Penrose sale of 1971 did best, realizing 29.31 times.
The Horblit sale of 1974 realized 17.87 times as much in the FSS sale.)
As the collection progressed and deepened, Frank expanded on
the various themes which intrigued him. Although
travels with the United States were never a major interest, he did acquire the
basic triumvirate of early western explorations within the Louisiana Purchase,
those by Zebulon Pike, Edwin James on the Long Expedition, and Lewis and Clark
(FSS sale 427, 279, 325). The
last, a beautiful copy in contemporary tree calf, equaled his father’s in
auction performance; Thomas Streeter’s copy in original boards set a
long-standing record by selling for $35,000 in 1967, while Frank’s set a new
record for the book in calf at $288,000 (to a phone bidder).
He also bought a number of classic works of travel in the American
Around 1980, Frank began to seriously develop the more
strictly scientific part of his collection.
He already possessed numerous important early practical navigation
works and some of a more theoretical nature.
There were two probable catalysts for this expanding interest.
The first was the sale of the Robert Honeyman collection in
While he bought books from various sources over the years,
Frank generally preferred to acquire books from his favorite dealers, or to
have them bid for him at auction or vet books he became aware of in other
dealer’s stocks. Initially this
had been Nebenzahl and Brooke-Hitching, then Hill in science.
As the 1980s went on, he also dealt with Helen Kahn in
In 1993, Frank acquired one of the major landmarks of his
collection, his father’s copy of The
Atlantic Neptune. This
remarkable coastal atlas, under the administration of Joseph F.W.
Des Barres, was sponsored by the Admiralty with the intention of
mapping in precise detail the entire coastline of North America from
Newfoundland to the mouth of the Mississippi.
Beginning publication in 1774, it never completed its southern end, but
produced many stunning charts, enlivened with vignettes of towns and places
inset in the maps. Because the
plates were constantly revised, and because copies would be made up to fill
individual ships’ needs, no two sets are alike.
The Streeter copy, bound for use on board a ship, is particularly
beautiful in its coloring and condition. At
the Thomas Streeter sale it was the third most expensive item, selling via
Sessler to Walpolean Richard Dietrich. When
Dick parted with the set at Christie’s in 1993, I bought it, and shortly
thereafter sold it to Frank. It
was both a pillar of his atlas collection and of the books he owned from his
father’s library. In the event
it was the second most expensive book at his sale (FSS sale 148, $779,200 to
The purchase of the Neptune
was, I think, another turning point for Frank as a collector.
He was seventy-five and at the point of finally retiring from active
business. He owned many wonderful
books, and the evolution of prices had reached a point where the new
valuations were many times what he had paid for much of his collection.
Acquisitions became less frequent and more considered, aiming at
filling gaps he had long intended to buy rather than striking out into new
territory. Books continued to come
in, but at a far slower pace. Indeed,
Frank never stopped collecting, buying books up to the last year of his life,
even after he had essentially taken the decision to part with the collection
in his lifetime. When he decided
to sell, he had two important reasons. First,
he did not want the disposition of the collection to be a burden on his family
and wanted to resolve it while he was present to organize it.
Secondly, he wanted to be present at the event.
With Nebenzahl and Hill as his agents, he worked out all of the details
of the sale exactly as he wanted it, including the date, and took part in
discussions with the auction houses. Ultimately
it was determined to auction the books via Christie’s.
Alas, on the very day the collection was picked up by the auction
house, he died after a brief illness.
The sale was set for April 16-17, 2007, the two days prior to
the New York Book Fair, when many of the major dealers and collectors would
already be in New York. Christie’s
did an exemplary job of preparing the catalogue, in two stout volumes, which
provide superb documentation of the books Frank collected.
In the modern mode of auction catalogue they describe the physical
appearance of the books and the nature of their contents in exhaustive detail.
Unlike the Thomas Streeter sale or other more recent major Americana
sales, which were arranged topically, it was decided to use a strictly
alphabetical order. The 552 lots
were sold in three sessions, the first on the evening of the 16th,
and the second and third during the day of the 17th.
The pre-sale buzz, not surprisingly, was quite strong.
Frank’s collection was the most important of its kind since the Frank
Siebert sale in 1999, and no copies of some of the books had been seen on the
market since he bought them in the 1970s.
There had also been an interesting warm-up for the sale at Sotheby’s
London in March, when the travel section of the library of the Earls of
Macclesfield had been sold. The
Macclesfield session had contained twenty books which also appeared in
Frank’s collection, including a Dudley atlas, a set of Purchas, and a copy
of the English Gonzalez de Mendoza. This
sale, despite condition issues on some of the books, was remarkably strong.
Most of the same players would reassemble in New York the next month,
and the prices paid in March made some of the Streeter estimates look
Modern sale rooms cannot match the romance, or the
information gathering potential, of the auctions of yesteryear.
At the time of the Thomas Streeter sale the bidders had no choice but
to assemble in one room and be seen, unless they bid through an agent.
It was thus relatively easy to track the buyers – in fact the
auctioneer generally called out the names of well-known dealers.
London houses went even further and published the names of the buyers
in the auction results. Most
bidding was through dealers. Modern
auctions are not inclined to provide free advertising to dealers, and only the
bidder’s paddle number is announced. Nonetheless,
an informed observer can quickly see who is attached to a paddle in the room,
and may well fathom which dealer represents a certain collector.
The prevalence of telephone bidding, and now internet bidding, makes it
far more difficult to understand who the unseen buyers are, and private
bidders often stay anonymous by staying out of the sale room.
Some sales end up with a handful of participants in the room and most
of the action on the phone.
In this regard Frank’s sale was at least a partial return
to old times; it was dominated by dealers, largely bidding for clients, and
for the most part actually present in the sale room.
This made it far more observable as it evolved into the slugging match
it became. Perhaps a hundred
people were present on the opening evening, including most of the leading
dealers in the field and a number of well-known collectors, as well as members
of the Streeter family and a number of Grolier Club friends such as Helmut
Friedlaender (who, though over 90, was a consistent bidder).
After several small opening lots, lot 3, Thomas Addison, Arithmeticall
Navigation… (London, 1625), set the tone for what was to follow.
The first English book to explain navigational problems by logarithmic
tables, Frank had purchased it at the Horblit sale, and no copy had appeared
since; it soared past the estimate (Horblit sale 13, $11520, FSS sale 3,
$78,000 to Harrington). Through
the vagaries of the alphabet the opening session contained far fewer major
books then the next day, but when
the 1619 and 1632 Champlain volumes both set records, the strength of the sale
was clear (FSS sale 100, $84,000 to Sourget, and 101, $264,000 to Block).
The capstone of the evening was The
Atlantic Neptune, which Christie’s had carefully planned to be almost
the final lot of the evening. Everybody
went home with much to reflect on.
The next morning the second session opened with a rousing run
through the Dobbs-Middleton pamphlets, all selling for four to six times the
high estimate, followed by an epic duel over the Horblit copy of Dudley, which
sold for twice what the Macclesfield copy had brought the previous month.
With the Horblit Enciso shortly after this, the sale achieved a
momentum it never lost, and even quite regular books began to achieve record
prices, in some cases going for multiples of the asking price of better copies
offered on-line. These minor books
aside, most of the major rarities achieved spectacular prices.
When the first edition of Richard Hakluyt, The
Principall Navigations… (London, 1589), a book which had never
approached six figures at auction, sold for eight times the estimate, even the
hardened veterans gasped (FSS sale 243,
Reese vs. Lan and sold to the latter for $456,000).
The run of pamphlets on John Harrison and the chronometer closed out
the morning with a breathtaking run, one rare pamphlet clearly undervalued at
its $3000/4000 estimate selling for $96,000 (FSS sale 251, to Block).
After a lunch break in which further adjustment of thinking
occurred, action resumed with Frank’s run of works of Kepler, then soared
with Mark Lescarbot, Nova Francia…
(London, 1609), the first English edition of the classic accounts of New
France (FSS sale lot 322, $144,000 to Reese) and the Lewis and Clark.
With all of the Pacific voyages performing very solidly, perhaps the
most exciting moment of the sale came with the 1555 Martyr from Penrose,
generally considered by the cognoscenti to be the best book in Frank’s
collection. After a long duel
between Quaritch and Reese the latter finally prevailed, although Quaritch
later won a similar round against Reese over the beautiful set of Purchas (FSS
sale 426, $576,000 to Quaritch). The
final major book, appropriately, was Frank’s beloved copy of Warre.
It, too, set an auction record (FSS sale lot 524, $192,000 to a phone
The Duke of Wellington famously said that the history of a
battle was like the history of a ball, because each participant came away with
a unique set of impressions depending on where they had been while it went on.
The same is certainly true of auctions, and the more one knows of the
material being sold and the persons bidding, the more complex those
impressions become. It is
impossible to convey, in less than an entire book, the thickness of
information (to borrow a phrase from modern anthropology) available to the
trained observer, and I necessarily abbreviate my saleroom notes.
One did not need any training, however, to see that the sale of
Frank’s books was a runaway success. The
final total was $16,421,820, with all but eight minor lots sold.
The only thing missing was Frank himself.
It was an epic conclusion to a collecting career, one that brought him
infinite pleasure in friends, books, and associations.