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Part of a job lot of books sold at Bristol Auction Rooms that made £6500, with the Goethe work on the far left.

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The catalogue for a January 25 sale held by Bristol Auction Rooms (20% buyer’s premium) noted only “Books leather bindings and others to include three vols of Le Cultivat America and three vols Histoire de Moroc, and Theory of Sound, Lord Rayleigh”.

The first named work, shown in the illustration above, is presumably a French edition, perhaps a 1784 copy of Crèvecoeur’s Lettres d’un Cultivateur Americain, or ‘Letters from an American Farmer’ as it was known when, two years earlier, it was published in England.

In 2014, a dampstained copy of the 1784 French edition, bound as two volumes, made $5200 at Swann Galleries. However, it is the single volume with gilt decorated spine, just to its left, on which I focused.

On investigation…

The saleroom’s suggestions as to the reasons for the lot’s success did not include this book, but a few calls soon brought an answer.

It was Chris Albury at the Dominic Winter auction house who immediately spotted the key point. The spine label reads ‘Goethe’s Werther’s Lieden’, but at the foot is the date 1774, the year in which the ‘Sturm und Strang’ novel that brought Goethe overnight fame, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, was first published in Leipzig.

A later conversation with a well-known local dealer revealed that this was a copy known in the trade, one that had been offered at auction before but returned as defective.

In 2001, at Christie’s New York, a fine first issue copy, containing the two parts and in contemporary calf, made $26,000 (then £18,055) as part of the Friedlander library.

Even so, this volume remains a rare thing and this job lot that may have held other attractions. What, for example, was to be found in the little vellum-bound volume that is seen between the Goethe and Crevecoeur lots?