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A bitter end for Hub gem

ON A DAY when New England was saluting the Patriots on their thrilling triumph in the Super Bowl, I was on my way to see a single book at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 

My purpose was to pay my respects to the remains of a great rarity that had become a victim of its own fragile beauty, a book that had been stripped to the bare bone for its 248 copperplate engravings. Fourteen months earlier, this copy had been described as "one of the most celebrated 18th-century fruit books" in the world by the New York auction firm Christie's, which was retained by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to sell it off to the highest bidder.

Known by a shortened form of its lengthy title as the Nurnbergische Hesperides, the book was assembled between 1708 and 1714 in two volumes by Johann Christoph Volkamer (1644-1720), a prominent Nuremberg merchant and citrus farmer. Though by no means the most dazzling prize put on the block by Christie's on Dec. 18, 2002 -- indeed, it was offered as lot 127 among 132 "important botanical books" that had been culled from the society's once legendary collections for the sale --it did fetch $50,190, more than $10,000 above its pre-sale estimate.

Acquired by a buyer who chose to remain anonymous, the two volumes were taken to Europe and shorn of their plates and calfskin bindings. Once disassembled, the black-and-white engravings were colored in by hand, a process that makes them more appealing as wall adornments, and thus more salable at prices from $500 to $1,500 each, as numerous Internet searches have confirmed.

Though not illegal, tearing apart a perfectly serviceable work of scholarly importance in order to extract its illustrations is roundly reviled as a form of cultural vandalism. When the financially beleaguered Horticultural Society proceeded with a two-tiered plan in 2002 for replenishing its coffers, there were dissenters who warned that just such an eventuality might happen to some of the books.

Phase one involved selling 2,219 books and 2,000 journals to the Chicago Botanic Garden for $3 million. Then, to maximize its return, the society consigned its most spectacular holdings to Christie's, a strategy that brought in an additional $2.45 million.

Unable to secure everything -- and fearing for what was about to be scattered to the four winds -- Chicago Botanic Garden librarian Edward J. Valauskas quietly put the word out among colleagues to look for cannibalized books from the Christie's sale he thought might show up on the antiquarian market.

A few months ago, a Chicago bookseller located what was left of the Hesperides in Great Britain and acquired it for $2,000; along with the detached pages of print came 10 of the newly colored plates.

Though the bindings and bookplates had been discarded, a positive identification was still possible since the Horticultural Society call numbers remained in place on two interior pages, along with the notations, "Bur. Oct. 1934," an unambiguous reference to Albert Cameron Burrage (1859-1931), a Boston tycoon who gave these books -- and many others -- to the society.

Just eight copies of the Nurnbergische Hesperides are reported in institutional collections worldwide, and only one in New England, at Yale. No facsimile edition has ever been produced, which is why even a truncated version is worth having in Chicago.

Valauskas explained that the illustrations were never meant as decorations, but as integral elements of the text. "Without the images," he said, "you lose the life of the book." But his anxiety extends well beyond what happened to this significant artifact. "How many other books from that auction," he wondered, "have met the same fate?"

Robert H. Fraker of Lanesborough, a specialist in natural history books who appraised the library in the 1990s and argued vehemently against its breakup, offered this reaction when informed of the desecration: "Albert Burrage bequeathed his collection to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society with the good faith expectation that it would be held there in perpetuity. While the ultimate villain is the person who put the knife to the book, the Christie's sale represents a fundamental betrayal of patrimony."

John C. Peterson, president and CEO of the society at the time of the sale, justified the dispersal then by asserting that the books "hadn't been used in decades." That will not be the case for the volumes now under Chicago stewardship. "Plants in Print: The Age of Botanical Discovery," an exhibition featuring many of the Boston acquisitions, will be on view from April 1 to July 15 at the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., and travel from there to Glencoe for an opening in September. In October, "Plants in Print," an international symposium, will be held at the Chicago Botanic Garden, with the Massachusetts titles occupying center stage.

Nicholas A. Basbanes is author of four books, most recently "A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World."

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