From Aristotle to Zora Neale Hurston: tracing ideas through written history

Two Christie's specialists choose their favourite works from Fine Books and Manuscripts sold to benefit Historic Deerfield


John Donne, Contemporary manuscript collection of poetry and prose, c. 1630-1633. Estimate: $200,000-$300,000. Offered in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts from 23 November-7 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

Encompassing over 100 works from the 15th through the 20th centuries and across themes of history, travel and literature, this extensive collection of books and manuscripts charts the evolution of human thought throughout history. 

With works ranging from an early edition of poetry by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and an autograph letter by Stephen Crane to a first edition of Chief Simon Pokagon’s Queen of the Woods, the collection features diverse voices alongside the canonical greats of literature.


From left to right: Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, 1653. Sold for $30,240; Chief Simon Pokagon, Queen of the Woods, 1899. Sold for $2,520; Stephen Crane, An autobiographical letter, 2 January 1896. Sold for $16,380. All sold in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

From 23 November through 7 December 2022, this wide-ranging collection will be offered online as part of the Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale. Proceeds will benefit Historic Deerfield, a museum of early American life. 

Located in western Massachusetts, the museum encompasses a mile-long street that dates to 1671 and is lined with original 18th-and 19th-century homes. The Historic Deerfield collection spans three centuries of American history and includes over 28,000 objects of fine and decorative art. 

‘A new Aristotle for a new age’

‘One of the things I love most about rare books is the way they allow you to trace the history of text and ideas,’ says Rhiannon Knol, Specialist in the Books & Manuscripts department. One such example is a 1496 edition of Aristotle’s Opera, translated from Greek to Latin, a book evocative of its era in both content and presentation.

‘By the time this edition was printed in 1496, the flowering of the Renaissance had created a need for a new Aristotle for the new age,’ says Knol. The rediscovery of the ancient philosopher's writings in the Middle Ages had had a transformative influence on intellectual thought throughout Western Europe. This book contains new translations of Aristotle's writings by prominent humanists directly from the Greek texts, which were flowing into Italy along with refugees from the Byzantine empire.

This copy is very special, retaining many original features which almost freeze that moment in time. The binding is contemporary Westphalian blind-stamped calf, bound by the Augustinian nuns at Coesfeld. Unusually, all of its index tabs and braided knots survive. The inside is no less beautiful, rubricated and with 12 decorated initials along with woodcut illustrations.

‘So many hands came together to make a book like this,’ says Knol. ‘Not just Aristotle writing long ago in ancient Greece, but the centuries of scribes and copyists who preserved his work, the scholars who carried manuscripts out of Byzantium, a host of humanist translators, the printers and typesetters, the illuminator and the rubricator, and finally, the women who bound the book with art and care — preserving it for five more centuries for us to appreciate.’ 

Threads of humanism 

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, often called Suetonius, was a Roman historian best known for Lives of the Twelve Caesars, a dramatised chronicle of the public and private lives of the first 12 Roman emperors. ‘A large number of the books produced in the early periods of printing are concerned with minutiae of theology or liturgy,’ says Knol, ‘so encountering a secular text from antiquity is always a treat.’

This second illustrated edition is further unique in the inclusion of many hand-coloured woodcut illustrations, including the depiction of the birth of Julius Caesar, the first-ever to portray a Caesarian section. 

The book was part of the extensive library of Peter Falck, a humanist scholar and Papal diplomat to Pope Julius II. ‘In addition to his name on the title page, the book was bound for him by the Franciscans at Fribourg, his hometown, with his arms stamped on the alum-tawed pigskin,’ says Knol. ‘Under his name, there is the subscription et amicorum — ‘and friends,’ emphasising that he viewed himself (and his library) as part of the humanist republic of letters, devoted to the study and recovery of antiquity.’

After Falck’s death, his library was passed to his daughter Ursula before descending through his family for several generations. This book was eventually acquired in the 19th century by Charles Harold St John Hornby, founder of the Ashendene Press. Known for producing books that were akin to works of art, Hornby was an important member of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was later in the collection of Italian publisher Giannalisa Feltrinelli.

The last in private hands 

Perhaps the rarest item in the collection is the Berland Donne manuscript, a volume of poetry and prose by the English poet John Donne. One of the last contemporary sources of his poetry still in private hands, it is composed of a 34-page manuscript of then-unpublished writings as well as first editions of Donne’s Poems and Juvenalia, both published posthumously in 1633.

Today, Donne is considered one of the foremost poets of his era, yet his work has gone in and out of favour across time. While he commanded respect amongst a small group of intellectuals in his own day, he fell out of fashion in the late 1600s and remained so for several centuries. It was not until the early 20th century that he was rediscovered, inspiring modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. 

Concerned with the paradoxes of intimacy, grief, science and religion, his writings have an enduring relevance that continues to strike readers today. In this Sammelband, the full scope of Donne’s works, from poetry to essays, which he himself termed ‘nothings,’ is on display. ‘Reading it in manuscript form is an incredibly intimate and moving experience,’ says Christina Geiger, Head of the Books & Manuscripts department.

Adding to its rarity is the belief amongst scholars that this volume is one of the original source copies for the first edition of Donne’s poems. One of these is ‘Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed’ in which Donne compares intimacies with a lover to the exploration of the New World. ‘O my America! My new-found-land, / My kingdom, safelist when with one man mann’d,’ writes Donne. ‘My mine of precious stones, My Empirie / How blest am I in this discovering thee!’ 

‘It’s hot and heavy stuff,’ says Geiger. ‘Perhaps it’s not surprising that this poem did not see print until 1654, more than 50 years after the probable date it was composed.’ 

A rare first edition 

Zora Neale Hurston’s now famous story of Janie Crawford’s journey of self-discovery — a staple on school reading lists and a pivotal work of the Harlem Renaissance — was largely dismissed during the author’s lifetime. Out of print for nearly 30 years, it was not until Alice Walker promoted Hurston’s writings in the 1970s that Their Eyes Were Watching God developed a wider readership. 

‘First editions of her works are correspondingly rare,’ explains Geiger. They are so rare, in fact, that only two other first editions in dust jacket have appeared at auction. ‘And this is not just any copy of the first edition,’ adds Geiger, ‘but one presented by the author to the actor Hattie McDaniel and with the original dust jacket and inscription preserved.’


Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937. Sold for $47,880 in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

McDaniel, who rose to fame for her role in Gone With the Wind, was also the first African-American actor to be awarded an Oscar™. ‘McDaniel and Hurston were both on the right side of history,’ says Geiger, ‘cruelly discriminated against in their lifetimes but whose talents are now idolised.’ 

Hurston’s inscription to McDaniel belies not just a warmth between the two, but also perhaps this common understanding: ‘To a beautiful throne-angel on the right-hand side,’ she writes, ‘Deeply reverent, Zora Neale Hurston.’

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