The three-decker, 1851 first of Herman Melville’s The Whale, sold for a record $110,000 (£86,615) by Sotheby’s New York.

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There were numerous differences in the text – some quite slight, but others that impacted in substantial and significant ways.

English reviewers were puzzled by the fact that the tale was somehow narrated by Ishmael, even though he perishes when Captain Ahab’s whaler, Pequod, is lost. That mystery seems to have resulted from the fact that the Epilogue in which his survival is revealed appears to have been lost or misplaced by the English printers.

Other changes however, some of them sizeable, resulted from censorship. Many hundreds of words attributing human failures to God, or comparing human shortcomings with divine ones, were revised or excised entirely. Sexual matters, including the reproductive habits of whales, even Ishmael’s concerns about the nature of harpooner Queequeg’s underwear, also had to go.

Remarks “belittling royalty or implying a criticism of the British” brought about the excision of the whole of Chapter 25, which discussed the use of sperm oil at coronations, while perceived grammatical or even stylistic anomalies were handled with what has been described as “a highly conservative interpretation” of rules of ‘correctness’.

The book was a failure in both the US, where it was published as Moby Dick, or The Whale, but is today a classic. The three-decker first in contemporary half calf and marbled boards offered in an online sale at Sotheby’s New York (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) from June 7-21 produced an auction record for the work at $110,000 (£86,615).

Essex inspiration


A whale launches a harpooner into the air as it smashes into a boat in this wood-engraved plate from a very rare copy of the ...Narrative of Capt. William Stockell sold in New York for $2200 (£1730).

A separate whaling section in the US sale included an 1821 first in original boards of Owen Chase’s Narrative… of the Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex – the inspiration for both Melville’s book and Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket – that sold for $8000 (£6300).

Sold at $3800 (£2990) was an 1843 copy in original wrappers of The Life of Samuel Comstock…, the story of a young Quaker harpooner who in 1824 had instigated a bloody mutiny on the whaler Globe and, following the slaughter of its officers, attempted to set up his own island nation in the South Pacific.

Bid to $2200 (£1730) was an 1840, Cincinnati first of The Eventful Narrative of Capt. William Stockell…, whose seagoing adventures included accounts of engagements with pirates and whaling expeditions, one of them with the sometime whaler and writer on the Arctic regions, William Scoresby. The tale also features shipwrecks, in the last of which Stockell was the sole survivor.

Melville purchases

In Melville’s bicentennial year, Swann Galleries of New York will on October 10 offer two heavily annotated volumes of works by Euripides, Juvenal and Persius from his library.

Estimated at $40,000-60,000 they are the only known survivors from a 37-volume, Harper Bros edition of the classics he purchased in 1860 on board the Meteor while making the long passage from New York to San Francisco, via Cape Horn.