Edward E. Ayer (1841-1927), an early Newberry Trustee and the first Field Museum President, knew what he liked: books and artifacts about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and their encounters with Europeans. Thanks to his generous 1911 gift of 17,000 items (and money for further acquisitions), the Newberry has an astounding collection of books and maps on this topic dating back centuries. Most artifacts would be donated by Ayer to the Field Museum eventually, but in an 1897 painting by his nephew, Eldridge Ayer Burbank, Ayer posed in his Chicago study surrounded by a profusion of his volumes, weavings, baskets, and beadwork.
Burbank rendered the books on the shelf in some detail, showing that Ayer organized them partially by size, with quartos and smaller items on top and taller folios (often containing maps) on the bottom. But what was the book that he is holding? It must have been particularly special to him.
Though we can’t know for sure, it is possible to hazard a very reasonable guess. According to an issue of The Illinois Idea published just a few months before the painting was produced, there had recently been a “Valuable Book Imported,” although the owner remained unnamed:
“On the steamship Spree was imported a volume of only eight pages, the appraised value of which was $2,000. It is a Latin translation of a letter written by Christopher Columbus, giving a report of his discovery of what he supposed to be islands off the coast of India. Stephen Plannck, a printer, of Rome, struck off a few copies of the translation in 1493.” (March 11, 1896)
$2,000 in 1896 is about $60,000 today, suggesting that whoever purchased the book must have been a very wealthy bibliophile indeed. Moreover, the buyer would likely have had a keen interest in “New World” history and Indigenous cultures. Could this “Valuable Book” have been purchased by Ayer himself—and be one and the same as the book in the painting?
We know that Ayer was in possession of the Letter. In fact, he would bequeath not one but two 1493 Columbus Letters to the Newberry. One is housed in a much-used early modern vellum binding. The other is an extremely thin volume with gold tooling on fine blue goatskin (a technique also known as Moroccan “crushed levant” for bringing out the grain of the leather).
Intriguingly, this item seems to fit very closely the description of the “Valuable Book” referred to in The Illinois Idea, which describes the binding in some detail: “The binding of full blue crushed levant, with a double of red levant, is by Thibaron Joly of Paris.” At the same time, it appears suspiciously similar to the item on Ayer’s lap: the two books are roughly the same relative size and color, even if the tooling is slightly different. (The Newberry item’s binding features straight tooled lines, while the volume in the painting displays filigreed dentelles, but artistic license on Burbank’s part may account for the minor change.)
The similarities between the bindings of the two books are strong enough to pursue our theory further. What lies inside the Newberry item?
It is the very same resplendent red “double” or “doublure” mentioned in The Illinois Idea, decorated in even more gold than the exterior! At the very bottom in miniscule letters the name of the Paris binders “Thibaron-Joly” seems to cinch the identification of Ayer’s favorite new book.
What do we know about the provenance of Ayer’s copies of the Columbus Letter? Ayer bought the Morocco-bound edition of his Columbus Letter from the London rare booksellers Bernard Quaritch, Ltd. Their catalog description suggests that it was previous owner Baron Achille Seillière (1813-1873) who had it dis-bound and outfitted with an up-to-date collector’s binding—the binding likely shown in the portrait. Ayer, too, re-bound a number of the books he bought—sometimes even more elaborately—but thankfully, he was selective in this treatment in his subsequent acquisition of his other copy of the Letter. Its pages remain relatively untrimmed, creating the optical illusion that the two opening texts are different in size, and he left intact the original vellum binding.
A volume with so much of its original context remaining is today of significantly more interest to scholars, and perhaps, collectors, than one in a 19th-century binding, no matter how luxurious. But the blue and gold levant binding seems to have been Ayer’s collector’s choice.
History is never static, and the long-heralded pursuits and discoveries of Christopher Columbus no longer outweigh the negative effects of his intrusion on the Americas. Yet the Letter remains a foundational document in the history of contact between Europe and an Indigenous world. Back in 1897, the acquisition was less politically charged. It would have been a triumph and a privilege for Ayer to be able to pose with his own Columbus Letter, one hand nonchalantly thumbing the pages.
Burbank’s portrait of Ayer is on permanent display in the Newberry’s From the Stacks exhibition opposite a changing rotation that always includes Ayer Collection items. And when they are not on view, you can also consult his Columbus Letters in the Special Collections Reading Room. We may however request politely, but firmly, that you do not rest either of the Letters on your lap.
By Suzanne Karr Schmidt, George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts