Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Rimington-Wilson's Chess Manuscript (part 2)

My posts on the Rimington-Wilson chess manuscript have proved quite popular. Its tangled provenance and the question of whether it was penned by Oliver Goldsmith, as was once thought, make an engaging biblio-mystery.

The story of the manuscript appears in two essays: "The J. W. Rimington-Wilson Library (part 1)" and "More on Rimington-Wilson's Chess Manuscript." I have received quite a few emails, primarily from members of the EXLIBRIS listserv, adding new color and detail. Let me summarize the story so far, with a bit more precision about chronology, and then add new material suggested by EXLIBRIS readers. The summary:
  1. Bolton Corney (1784-1870), a literary critic and antiquary, owned a manuscript translation of Vida's 1527 poem Scacchia Ludus (The Game of Chess) said to be in the hand of Oliver Goldsmith. Corney  wrote and edited a number of books, the most relevant of which is Goldsmith's Poetical Works, Illustrated, with a Memoir (1846). (ODNB). Corney's book does not contain the chess poem, although it mentions a fragmentary translation of another poem by Vida.

  2. The manuscript is described by John Forster in his Life of Goldsmith (1848) based on Forster's examination of the Corney copy. I quoted the description extensively in the last blog essay, noting that the description seemed a bit strained as to authenticity. One EXLIBRIS reader suggested that Forster was not concerned with authenticity, but whether the manuscript was "an original work by Goldsmith or a work which he merely transcribed." Rereading the passage, I find myself agreeing with the reader. In any case, it seems reasonable that Bolton acquired the manuscript after the work he edited in 1846, but before Forster wrote about his copy in 1848.

  3. In 1871, after Corney's death, chess collector J. W. Rimington-Wilson purchases the manuscript from the London bookseller F. S. Ellis. Rimington-Wilson dies in 1877. The chess collection, including the Vida manuscript, stays in the Rimington-Wilson family, passing to son Reginald Henry Rimington-Wilson. (1852-1927).

  4. In 1926,  Katharine C. Balderston writes A Census of the Manuscripts of Oliver Goldsmith attributing the Vida manuscript to Oliver Goldsmith. She is unable to trace the manuscript prior to the ownership of Bolton Corney.

  5. R. H. Rimington-Wilson dies in 1927 and his nephew, Captain H. E. Rimington-Wilson, orders the sale of the library by auction at Sotheby's in February 1928. The Vida manuscript is the most important lot in the sale, with a reproduction of the first page appearing on the cover of the catalogue. Two letters from Ellis to J. W. R-W relating to the sale of the manuscript are included with the lot.

  6. The London bookseller Maggs purchases the manuscript at the R-W sale for £5600. Maggs is acting on behalf of the Philadelphia book dealer Charles Sessler. 

  7. Sessler sells the book to composer Jermone Kern for $32,998.10. 

  8. The manuscript is offered at the legendary Kern auction at Anderson Galleries in January 1929. The New York Times reports that someone named Perkins purchased the lot for $27,000, but he returns  it to Kern, claiming that it was not in the hand of Oliver Goldsmith as claimed. 

  9. Kern attempts to return the manuscript to Sessler. Sessler refuses to return the money, claiming that the manuscript is in the hand of Goldsmith. Kern brings suit in the Federal District Court of Philadelphia for return of the the sale price. 
Now for two new bits of color, both relating to the Kern sale, from two EXLIBRIS readers. 

First, Travis McDade, Curator of Law Rare Books at the University of Illinois College of Law pointed me to a brief first person account of the Kern sale by Robert Coates called “Books at a Million” in the New Yorker of January 19, 1929:
A copy of Goldsmith's "Vida's Sacchis, or Chess," starting at ten thousand dollars as we prepared to go, had reached twenty-five thousand before we found our gloves. Only the experts know why some items sell for larger amounts than others. Rosenbach's [about whom more below] interest in a book or manuscript, however, usually sends it pretty high before it is sold. Thus he had to go to seventeen thousand five hundred for a thin, faded green volume written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she was eleven years old, a price three times as much as was paid for a first edition of Boswell's "Johnson," with autographed letters of both Johnson and Boswell thrown in. (page 9)
Second, Stephen Tabor, Curator of Early Printed Books at the Huntington Library, pointed me to Rosenbach, A Biography, by Edwin Wolf 2nd and John F. Fleming (1936). A. W. S. Rosenbach (1876-1952) was a flamboyant Philadelphia book dealer who helped develop the collections at the Huntington and the Folger and was a bookseller to J. P. Morgan. He was a major bidder at the Kern sale where prices reached "dizzy heights." While Rosenbach apparently did not bid on the Vida manuscript, the biography notes his involvement:
Goldsmith shared in the boom. Of course excepting the so-called autograph manuscript of a translation of Vida's Scacchis, or Chess. Sessler had bought it for Kern at the Rimington Wilson sale at Sotheby's a year earlier for almost $33,000, but at $27,000 Owen Young beat out Sessler for it. After the sale and a converstaion with the Doctor [that is, with Rosenbach] he returned it to Anderson's as "wrong." Dr. Rosenbach was convinced that it was not in Goldsmith's hand, and although Miss Balderston, the greatest Goldsmith expert, had nodded in its favor before the sale, she was convinced afterward that she had not studied it carefully enough. The manuscript was returned to Kern and in the middle thirties, he was still trying to get it reinstated as genuine. (pages 310-1)
It is unclear why the New York Times reports the purchaser as Perkins, while here the purchaser is said to be Owen Young. 

The Rosenbach biography is anecdotal rather than scholarly. As Wolf notes in the preface,
Some of the stories Dr. Rosenbach told about himself are included here to give a Rosenbachian flavor to the book. Like most folk tales they have been passed down from mouth to mouth and may have been altered in the telling, but like most folk tales they are revealing of the circumstances in which they were reputed to have taken place. (pages 7-8)
With that caveat, the biography indicates the indirect involvement of Balderston and Rosenbach at the Kern sale and shows the manuscript still in Kern's possession in the mid-1930s. Oddly, Kern who sued Sessler claiming the manuscript was not in Goldsmith's hand, was claiming it to be genuine in later years.

Many questions remain:
  • Where is the manuscript now?
  • What was the resolution of the litigation between Kern and Sessler? 
  • Is the manuscript in Goldsmith's hand?
I do think it will take research in Philadelphia to extend the story and answer the nagging questions.Until then, we can trace the manuscript from Bolton Corney in the 1840s to the collection of J. W. Rimington-Wilson and on to Jerome Kern as late as the mid-1930s. Can we add to this 90 year history?


  1. David, have you had any luck locating the manuscript, in Philadephia or elsewhere? I'm currently editing Goldsmith's verse and would be keen to know if any advance has been made. Michael

  2. This blog is wonderful by the way! Thank you for it, Michael