Dobbs-Middleton dispute

Nothing can be as fascinating in the world of exploration and discovery as some of the early Arctic voyages. Still one of the last frontiers on earth, the region that spans the Arctic Ocean and covers land areas in parts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States (Alaska), has attracted numerous explorers whose journeys are documented in various journals and accounts. One of my favorite exploration adventures is the search for the Northwest Passage, specifically what is referred to as the Dobbs-Middleton controversy.

In order to grasp the essence of the Dobbs-Middleton dispute, a bit of a background historical information is necessary, beginning with the Russians who had forced their way to the east of Siberia and discovered Alaska in 1648. One of the consequences of the Russian advancement was believed to be the formation of the Hudson Bay Company by the British American colonies in 1670. Listed in the fur trade business, the company spent more energy exploring the possibility of a north-west passage to India and China from the western outlet of the Hudson Bay.  In May of 1741, after some unsuccessful voyages of discovery, two ships,  the Furnace Bomb and the Discovery Pink, left England with Irish engineer-in-chief and surveyor-general, Arthur Dobbs’s abstracts containing all voyages’ information known to him at the time. Dobbs, who did  not travel with the expedition,  selected Hudson Bay’s Captain Christopher Middleton to be the commander of the expedition. They ascended as far as 88° west  Greenwich, examining all openings, but they were stopped by the ice at Repulse Bay, turning back on September 1742. Middleton reported that the only openings seen between the 65 and the 66 parallels of north latitude were from large rivers. Dobbs accused Middleton of making false statements and brought the matter before Admiral Sir Charles Wager.

For collectors of the “Exploration & Travel” genre, the Dobbs-Middleton dispute produced a number of collectible items.  Middleton’s “Vindication of the Conduct of Captain Christopher Middleton” (London, 1743) was followed by “Remarks on Capt. Middleton’s Defence by A. Dobbs”  (London, 1744), which was re-battled by Middleton’s  “A Rejoinder”  (London, 1745).  Despite containing extensive controversial portions, some of the accounts contain much valuable and interesting information regarding the physical geography of the area.

Hudson Bay Map

Thomas W. Streeter, Sr.  (1883-1965), the greatest Americana book collector of the 20th century, and his son Frank Sherwin Streeter, collected among other treasures the pamphlets around the Dobbs-Middleton controversy.  Some of the pamphlets in this fierce dispute of words have long been regarded as the black tulips of early Arctic voyages, and were sold by Christie’s New York   on April 16-17, 2007 as part of an event titled “The Frank S. Streeter Library: Important Navigation, Pacific Voyages, Cartography, Science.”  Among them, “Dobbs, Arthur. A Reply to Capt. Middleton’s Answer to the Remarks on his Vindication of his Conduct… London: J. Robinson, 1745,” sold for $31,200. It was estimated at a mere $4,000-$6,000. Seven more lots attracted similar enthusiasm from bidders.

This September, Sotheby’s is holding the second part of its Exploration and Discovery 1576-1939: The Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching, featuring authors D-J. Franklin Brooke-Hitching who assembled the finest private collection of English language books relating to voyages, exploration and discovery from 16th century to the 1930s. This second part includes a collection of seven works in 3 volumes dated 1743-45 on the Dobbs-Middleton controversy.  Estimate: £60,000-90,000.  If part 1 is any indication of things to come, the lot could easily break through the high estimate.

An interesting part of this literature pertaining to the dispute had to do with the activities of the Russians in the Siberian Arctic with their own explorations of the Northern Pacific under Vitus Bering, the exploration of Bering Strait, Bering’s discovery of Alaska, and the Russian occupation of that northern tip of the continent.  Russian advancement had important implications to the nature of the motives behind the dispute that ultimately led to such collectible writings.

Dobbs-Middleton Dispute2

pamphlets of the Dobbs-Middleton  dispute


Business Adventures by John Brooks

A 43-year old book is soon to be the business bestseller thanks to Bill Gates.  The reprint of Business Adventures is scheduled to be released Aug 16, but digital publishers that reproduced it as an e-book have sent it to # 1 on Amazon and the New York Times bestseller lists. The book was originally written in 1969 by John Brooks and contains thirteen American business articles from the 1960s, after first appearing in the New Yorker magazine. Stories include the Ford Edsel failure, the rise of Xerox and Piggly Wiggly grocery, the GE price-fixing, the case of Goodrich vs. Latex  trade secrets and theTexas Gulf Sulphur scandals. Needless to point out that the first edition of the book disappeared from the market soon after the Bill Gate’s article appeared first in the July 11th edition of the Wall Street Journal and on Bill’s blog, “gatesnotes”, the following day.  Historically, books that were the feature on gatesnotes received some significant upticks in their sales numbers.

Business Adventures was originally recommended to Gates in 1991 by Warren Buffet who classified it at the top of his favorite list of business books that he had had the opportunity to read. At that time Gates was not familiar with the title but after reading it he became intrigued by the author’s ability to focus on the fundamental business issues with in depth exploration and an emphasis on the essential human leadership endeavor. Gates now names John Brooks as his favorite business writer of all time.

After being reprinted several times in the 1970s, the book dropped out of bookstores and vanished from backlists. Up until July 11th a number of copies including first editions were available for purchase at reasonable prices. As of a few weeks ago the only copies that can be found are either British reprints published by Littlehampton Book Services Ltd or second editions going for $2000. The news that the author’s son Alex Brook and Gates’ business developers signed an agreement to re-release outside the now-defunct original publisher, Weybright and Talley, did not stop the rush to own the book at any cost.

Bill’s article makes reference to two other books written by Brooks: The Go-Go Years; New York: Weybright & Talley, 1973, with an introduction by journalist Michael Lewis and the Fate of the Edsel and Other Business Adventures; Harper & Row, 1963. The latter contains three of the essays that later appeared in the Business Adventures, in a very slightly different form.  First printings of either of these books are surprisingly scarce and currently trading for a few thousand dollars as well. Some of Brooks’ other works, such as the Wall Street classic, Once In Golconda: A True Story of Wall Street 1920-1938; New York: Harper & Row, 1969 which is still in print, is also showing a great deal of collector interest especially  for the first printings that are in attractive condition.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding the re-release of Business Adventures, the world of rare book collecting has a new author’s treasures to track and to seek. Such collector value is derived from the extraordinary talent of John Brooks and the endorsement of two of our greatest business gurus. They are attracted to his books by his ability to masterfully achieve the fusion of a good piece of journalism with an entertaining read, while offering some pretty essential business lessons at the same time.  Beyond Business Adventures first editions, the opportunist rare book collector is finding value in other first editions authored by John Brooks including some of his extremely scarce inscribed copies. It surely dramatizes another episode in financial journalism deserving a business article by the best business author of recent time complements of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.



Rare Book Marketplace Shifting Gears

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Towards the end of last century, antiquarian book dealer William S. Reese presented his much publicized view of “The Rare Book Market Today” at Brown University. In this historical retrospect beginning with the depressed years prior to World War II, 1945 was picked to be the year of the greatest buying opportunity, since rare books […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2nd Quarter 2014

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The April 2012 article titled “Adam Smith’s Classic of Modern Economic Thought,” articulated the difficulty in tracking price changes in rare books that exhibit limited transactional activity. The Rare Book Sale Monitor, which tracks monthly sales from multiple channels and compares them to historic quarterly pricing in order to report on significant shifts in pricing […]

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The First Illustrated Textbook of Surgery

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During the Golden Age of Islamic science, (750 to 1258 AD) European medical practice was influenced by the important contributions of Muslims such as Al-Razi “Rhazes” (d. 925), Abul Quasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi  “Albucasis” (940 – 1013), Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Al-Zahrawi considered to be the father of modern surgery, diagnosed and treated many […]

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America’s Oldest Continuously Running Rare Book Shop

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Amongst the lively city of Boston, Massachusetts, a rare book lover’s gem is unearthed. Nestled between grandiose skyscrapers and the inevitable routine city bustle, the oldest continuously running rare book shop is found: Brattle Book Shop. From the delightfully carved wooden sign bearing the shop’s name, to the exquisite front window display, all that encompasses […]

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Book Restoration: Good or Bad?

May 30, 2014
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Sotheby’s sold Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, at an auction last month for $377,000 including buyer premium. The lot was traded at the high end of the estimated value, signifying the fact that rare book investors and collectors will pay premium prices to acquire top quality books.  This particular […]

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Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

May 23, 2014
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Among some of the most important poems in the English language lies Ode to a Nightingale. The poem, written by John Keats in 1819, is probably the most famous of his Great Odes, which also include Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, Fancy,  and  To Autumn.  The collection is published in the third […]

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iApparatus in Rare Books

May 16, 2014
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On April 3rd of 1973, Martin Cooper, the leader of Motorola’s cell phone team, broke History. In a fashion reminiscent of Alexander Graham Bell 100 years prior, Cooper called Joel Engel, the research head of rival AT&T’s Bell Labs to say – “Joel, I’m calling you from a real cellular phone.” Historic breakthrough introductions such […]

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The Market for Early Printings of Venetian Woodblock Decorated Books

May 9, 2014
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Not long after Johannes Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical printing system in Europe around 1450, the first woodcut book illustration was printed in 1461. Woodcuts can be easily printed together with movable type because both are relief-printed (a process by which protruding surface faces of the printing plate or block are inked; recessed […]

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