From Left to RightBeatrix Potter (1866-1943), The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London Privately printed, 1901. Estimate $40,000-60,000; The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter, 1904. Estimate $4,000-6,000;

The spirit of exploration: fantastic tales from the
Maurice Sendak collection

Rare books, lithographs and manuscripts provided by the Rosenbach shine a light on the inspirations of the
famed children’s writer

Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are begins with Max, the main character, rebelling against his mother: ‘WILD THING!’ she yells at him. ‘I’LL EAT YOU!’ he snaps back, before his bedroom begins to change into a forest of wild things, with their terrible teeth and terrible claws.

Known worldwide as an author and illustrator for young readers, Sendak recognized childhood as more than just a formative period — he saw it as a time of freedom, where courage was required and learning came from experience, especially getting into trouble. To him a book was not just an object, but a seed which provided the means to inspire and sustain young minds in their adventures.

It is this spirit of exploration that informed his taste in his own reading material. He was a voracious reader and an avid book collector who drew upon a wide range of sources within and beyond literature for his fantastic tales.

A selection of Sendak’s personal collection will be in the upcoming auction, Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana, taking place online from 11-25 April at Christie’s. These items showcase the author as he is not often seen: as a collector and curator of significant objects at the intersection of art and literary history. The books will be sold to benefit The Rosenbach, the Philadelphia museum and library dedicated to engaging and celebrating the art of the written word using rare books, manuscripts, and historical objects.

A rare piece from his collection offered in this sale is an autograph manuscript for a Brothers Grimm story titled Liebe Mili (Dear Mili). It dates from 1816, and is the first Grimm manuscript to appear at auction since it was first sold in 1974.

Also from the Brothers Grimm is a presentation copy of Kinder- und Hausmärchen from 1825, which bears an inscription in the hand of Jacob Grimm, with signatures from him and his brother Wilhelm. Given as a birthday present to Amalie Hassenpflug, a family friend who had contributed stories to their opus, it reads: ‘Malchen Hassenpflug. Wir schenken dir das, bei deinem nunmehrigen Austritt aus den Kinderjahren, zur erinnerung an die schöne zeit. den 30 jan 1826.’ (‘We present you with this on your impending departure from childhood as a reminder of happy times.’)

The Brothers, with their fearless exposition of all aspects of life, were prominent members of the adventurous children’s literature canon of which Sendak himself was part. In preparation for illustrating the 150th anniversary edition of a collection of their short stories, he went so far as to sail to Europe to better understand the landscape they came from, and the world for which they wrote.

He also looked to his 20th century peers, such as Beatrix Potter. Like Sendak’s works, Potter’s Peter Rabbit addresses the theme of danger in exploration. It was first published in a private press before being picked up by a major publisher, suggesting that Potter herself as well as her publishers considered it a book with a questionable moral outlook. Distributed to her friends and family who sold it for one pound, two pence each, the edition included in this sale is one of the 250 copies from the original private run in 1901.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London Privately printed, 1901. Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana on 11–25 April 2022 at Christies Online
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London: Privately printed, 1901. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana on 11–25 April 2022 at Christie's Online

Sendak’s influences went beyond literature. An inscribed edition of Fernand Leger’s Cirque lithographs from 1950, as well as four books with illustrations by Pierre Bonnard, underscore his interdisciplinary approach to creation. Combining the eye of an artist with the cultural understanding of an author, he was able to make a longstanding impression upon generations of children and adults alike.

Further evidence of Sendak’s studies can be found in an unusual and rare manuscript by Vincent van Gogh, wherein the famed polymath transcribed verses from the Bible in both English and Dutch. It’s estimated to have been written in 1877, at the height of the artist’s religious conviction, before he made most of the art for which he is now known.

Like Van Gogh, Sendak’s pursuit of knowledge was boundless. He was purposeful in his studies, crystallising his beliefs in the words and illustrations for which he is most famous. This collection is a way of looking at the more private inspirations — the books of lithographs show his scholarship in fine art, while the literature included demonstrates a wide-reaching curiosity for both popular and lesser-known works.

His collection, a catalogue of works that inspired him, will continue to provide children and adults alike with the foundations for living without bounds. As he would encourage us all: ‘Let the wild rumpus begin!’