One of 301 watercolours by Christopher Webb Smith that illustrate a four-volume manuscript plan for a study of Indian birds. It made $200,000 (£155,040) at Bonhams.

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The natural history content of the October 23 sale held by Bonhams New York (27.5/25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) was led by a four-volume ‘Indian Ornithology’ collection of 301 original watercolours that more than trebled the high estimate in selling at $200,000 (£155,040).

Dated Patna 1828, this was Christopher Webb Smith’s unpublished manuscript mock-up for a pioneering work on Indian bird life that appears never to have been formally printed and published.

In 1989 it was offered among the superb ornithological holdings of the great Bradley Martin library at Sotheby’s New York, but seems to have been unsold – at least in the saleroom.


‘Emys Pieta’, views of a pond turtle in one of 147 coloured litho plates that illustrate a five-volume, 1842 second (but first complete and much enlarged) edition of JE Holbrook’s pioneering North American Herpetology, or, Description of the Reptiles inhabiting the United States. It sold at Bonhams New York for $20,000 (£15,505).

Austen letter

High spot of an autograph collection formed by William E Dodge and other family members that opened the sale was a long, chatty letter addressed by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra (briefly mentioned in News Digest, ATG No 2416).

Dating from 1813, the year that Pride and Prejudice was published, it was making its third auction appearance, but the first since 1909. In it Jane mentions the Wedgwood china that their brother Edward had acquired, music lessons, her niece Marianne’s visit to the dentist and many other matters.

The bulk of Jane’s letters were destroyed by Cassandra and other family members in the 1840s – a familiar enough practice at the time but perhaps here aimed at preserving her by then much-loved image. Of perhaps 3000 written over the years, only 161 now survive, 96 of them addressed to Cassandra, her most frequent and intimate correspondent.

It sold at $160,000 (£124,030).

From a different source, and far removed in spirit and content, came a rare letter in the hand of Jesse James.

Furiously demanding that a Mr Flood retracts his accusation that he is a horse thief, James threatens “…if you value your life you had better retrace your Slander”.

Sold at $170,000 (£131,785), the letter was forwarded for delivery by Dr Yates, who had attended the James family when a raid on the family farm in Missouri by Pinkerton detectives led to the death of James’ nine-year-old half-brother and wounds that led to the loss of his mother’s arm.

Custer and Stanley

Described as an “extraordinarily vivid first-hand account of the Stanley-Custer Yellowstone expedition”, a 138pp manuscript written by a 19-year-old member of the surveying team engaged on determining a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad sold at $40,000 (£31,100).

On this expedition around 350 civilians were accompanied and protected by some 1500 men of the 7th Cavalry under the joint command of generals Custer and Stanley.