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Working as a surveyor with the Somerset Coal Canal at the end of the 18th century, Smith came to realise that lithologically similar strata could be distinguished by their fossil content. It took him nearly 15 years to produce his great geological survey of the country on these principles, but the detail he provided was quite amazing for the time, and still impresses geologists today. Published in 1815 the Delineation... comprised an atlas volume containing 15 full map sheets, all beautifully coloured and shaded to show various strata and rock beds, plus a key map – together with an accompanying text volume, the Memoir...

The example offered as part of the Joseph A.Freilich scientific library at Sotheby’s New York on January 11 – the atlas in contemporary half calf and boards, the Memoir in the original brown paper wrappers – was one of many major items in the Freilich sale that had been bought only two years ago at the Christie’s New York sales of the Haskell F.Norman library. In October 1998 it sold for $105,000 (then £63,000), but this time the price was less that half that figure, at $42,500 (£29,310).

The ex-Norman copy of Smith’s New Geological Map of England and Wales..., an 1820 pocket version of the wall-map format Delineation – and one that is actually much rare than the earlier and larger map – brought $8000 (£5515) this time out. In 1998, Freilich had paid $13,000 (£7800)