Last week our Antiquarian, Rare and Collectible (ARC) department acquired a copy J. Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, First American Edition from 1827, with the provenance of having belonged to Peter Augustus Jay and John Clarkson Jay. While these names may be unfamiliar to most, a cursory internet search reveals them to be, respectively, the son and grandson of John Jay, one of America’s Founding Fathers and the United States’ first Chief Justice, as well as accomplished statesmen in their own right. The Jays also hold the distinction of being one of the United States’ “First Families.”
“Provenance” explains the historical record of ownership of a historical artifact. In the world of antiquarian books and other collectibles it means “important people who owned important books.” The previous owner of a book is often revealed by an Ex-Libris bookplate or name inscribed at the front of the book. Many books have these characteristics, however most people are relatively unimportant in terms of collectibility. This is an instance that proved otherwise.
The next task for the bookseller, which always proves a bit tricky, is finding the person or institution that wants such a one-of-a-kind item. I’m not sure if this qualifies as serendipity, but the same internet search of these persons also provided a link to The Jay Heritage Center; aka John Jay’s family estate, www.jaycenter.org. A quick email and phone call later; this two volume set has been restored to its first home.
Ryan Van Plew-Cid is a Rare Book Specialist at Better World Books, one of the founding members of BWB’s Antiquarian, Rare and Collectible department, and a San Diego native.