In 1956, upon the occasion of L. Frank Baum's 100th birthday, Justin Schiller loaned to Columbia University impossible-to-find copies from the author's Land of Oz series. At the time, Schiller, the sole son of antique-hunters, was all of 12 years old.
That head start which began with little Justin browsing New York City's "Book Row" along 4th Avenue, his pocket full of nickels "propelled me into the rare-book scene," Schiller says. He had begun collecting at 8, and by 1960 Columbia University's favorite pre-teen had already become one of the world's preeminent experts in and collector of children's literature.
Sixty years later, after decades as a seller of rare and wonderous books for kids and the grown-ups who raised them, Schiller brings his breathtaking assemblage of extraordinary rarities to Heritage Auctions for a one-day event spanning centuries. The Dec. 16 auction, titled Once Upon a Time: Rare Children's Literature from Justin G. Schiller, Ltd., is a truly historic occasion.
"It's probably going to be the most important auction of rare children's books that has ever been held in America," Schiller says. "I say that as modestly as I can say it."
Here, one can time travel from 1697 (a pirated copy of Charles Perrault's Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé, containing all eight of his beloved fairy tales) to 1837 (an inscribed copy of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen, gifted to a woman who inspired and provided some of the fairy tales to the Brothers Grimm) to the 1960s (when a young Shel Silverstein handcrafted the first manuscript to his classic Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book).
Here, one will find a first printing of the first edition of the privately published The Tale of Peter Rabbit from 1901, when no publisher would touch Beatrix Potter's "bunny book" now one of publishing's all-time best-sellers. And an inscribed first printing of the first edition of Hans Christian Andersen's Eventyr, Fortalte For Børn from 1835. And Theodor Seuss Giesel's original drawing from 1938 titled "Matilda The Compassionate Elefant Who Devotes her Days to the Hatching of Orphan Humming Bird Eggs," featuring Dr. Seuss's earliest incarnation of the character eventually called Horton.
And, of course, here, too, is a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published 120 years ago.
"It's just amazing, the breadth of this sale," says James Gannon, Heritage Auctions' Director of Rare Books. "So many of the offerings are museum-quality. Auctions always have their highlights, and these usually limited to a handful out of many. But thanks to Justin's diligence and determination, nearly every offering here is a highlight."
Look no further than The Tale of Peter Rabbit available in this event, which is not only one of the 250 privately published copies made available in December 1901, but one annotated by Potter herself on the copyright page, where she has written in pencil, "F. Warne & Co 15 Bedford St Strand/to be published in the autumn 1902." Potter paid for the copies herself when she could find no takers, and peddled the tome to nearby booksellers in the hopes of getting them to carry the official release forthcoming from Frederick Warne & Co., who eventually published 23 Potter titles between 1902 and 1930.
Here, too, is her circa-1890s illustration Dancing to the Piper, featuring seven bunnies frolicking to a tune played by the rabbit perched on the stool in the center. When Gannon speaks of museum-quality, this is such a piece: Four illustrations from "The Rabbit's Christmas Party" series, from which the Piper comes, are featured in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the world's largest repository of Potter's drawings, manuscripts and correspondence.
Many of the artifacts that didn't find their way into the museum's collection can be found here, among them three handwritten manuscripts for Wag-by-Wall, which first appeared in 1944 in the pages of The Horn Book Magazine of children's literature. And each of those comes with its own archive: One is accompanied by 11 missives from Potter to Horn Book editor Bertha Mahony Miller, two of which bear illustrations of a Wag-by-Wall clock; one includes a draft of Wag-by-Wall as part of a larger story called The Solitary Mouse(entirely unpublished); the other features the first American edition of the book.
And, separately, there is the 1942 questionnaire The Horn Book Magazine asked Beatrix Potter to complete, in which the author handwrites a biography not seen until now, as the collection for which it was intended only saw publication after her death in 1943. This extraordinary offering is accompanied by two letters Potter sent to Miller, with whom she became friends in the months before her death. The entirety presents an intimate portrait of the writer heretofore unavailable, and preserved by Schiller with the eye of a scholar and heart of an admirer.
No less extraordinary is the 1837 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
This two-volume edition is the first enlarged, which is to say unabridged, edition remarkable enough. But what makes it altogether extraordinary is the inscription inside the first volume, in which Wilhelm Grimm writes, "Dem lieben Malchen Hassenpflug / von seinem Treuen Freunde / Wilhelm Grimm. / Göttingen 23 October 1837" that is, "To dear Malchen Hassenpflug from her true friend Wilhelm Grimm."
Malchen was merely a nickname bestowed to Amalie Hassenpflug, a friend of the family's and one of three sisters who contributed, significantly, to the Brothers Grimm's collection of Children's and Household Tales. Indeed, Amalie is thought to have contributed about 10 tales, as did her sister Jeanette, and the eldest Marie likely contributed more than 20.
"This is Wilhelm Grimm's gift to one of the sources of the fairy tales," says Samantha Sisler, Production Specialist in Heritage's Rare Books department. "He wrote them down, but she's the source. This is certainly among the most important association copies of Grimm's Fairy Tales. To acquire a book of this significance collectors likely won't get another chance."
But without Charles Perrault, the world may never have heard of the Brothers Grimm. After all, the former secretary to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister to Louis XIV of France, made fairy tales of folk stories, most famously "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Little Red Riding Hood" among several other immortals some of which were nicked by the brothers for their own collection.
Of course, no Schiller sale would be complete without a copy of Perrault's Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé, otherwise known as Tales and Stories of the Past. And, of course, his is one of the earliest and finest known from the year of its publication, 1697. But what makes this copy altogether outstanding is its origin: This was an unauthorized printing, published the same year as the first edition, likely from a shop in Amsterdam, proof of how quickly word spread of Perrault's work.
"It's just a tiny thing that just about fits in the palm of my hand," Sisler says, "and yet its woodcuts are so detailed it is incredible."
So, too, is the handwritten manuscript for Shel Silverstein's Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book a copy that looks like it was made by children for children, though what lies beneath the slightly tattered pink exterior is profoundly adult. After all, Silverstein, who had not yet shown us where the sidewalk ends or flipped on the light in the attic, had originally presented some of these pages in Playboy; hence its declaration as a "primer for tender young minds."
"The Silverstein manuscript is to be treasured, but there are 530 lots in this event, and just about every one is a highlight," Gannon says, and rightly so.
Schiller has spent decades collecting not only for his customers and clients, but for himself. And as he likes to say, he often wouldn't part with a book if "I hadn't found the right person who I felt deserved our offering of it."