YOU CANNOT ALWAYS JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
The old cliche of not judging a book by its cover is true in more than one sense. Today the dust wrapper is as important as the contents and the edition of the book itself. Sometimes a first edition is not always the best edition. Here a good example is Captain William Cornwallis Harris’ Narrative of an Expedition into Southern Africa (1852). The fifth edition of this work is the best, as it includes extra illustrations and text not found in earlier editions.
Michael Prior and his wife Vanessa have been in the antique business for many years. Their business, Collectables, is based in Johannesburg and today they also have a shop in Hermanus, called Tutamen. Michael’s love of books, maps, prints, documents and signatures goes back a long way. He is meticulous in his research and he has over the years unearthed many interesting and unusual items.
Recently he showed me two interesting books which he had acquired. The first of these is a Dutch bible published in Amsterdam in 1797. The previous owner’s wife always felt that it was special and after her death her husband sold the book to Prior knowing of his love of old books and interest in history. The bible like all purchases that a dealer makes was set aside until time could be spent on researching it. The first thing about the bible was the inscription which reads “Peterus Erasmus Smit Jun. Graaff-Reinet 26th December 1827”. Smit is an interesting character who played an important part in the 19th Century colonial history of South Africa. Born in Amsterdam in 1778 he came to South Africa in 1804. He worked as a missionary with the London Missionary Society at Bethelsdorp. In June 1813 Smit married Suzanna Maritz the sister of Gert Maritz the Voortrekker leader. The marriage took place in Graaff-Reinet when Suzanna was not quite14 years old. In the same year they moved to Colesberg to continue his work as a missionary. From there they moved to Beaufort West and later to Graaff-Reinet again. This latter move is significant as far as the bible is concerned. In 1836 Smit aged 59 joined the Great Trek with his brother-in-law Gert Maritz. Smit kept a diary throughout his life and the early part of it unfortunately has been lost. The period from 1836 to 1839 however has survived and was published as The Diary of Erasmus Smit (Cape Town, 1972). Here he records his experiences with the trekkers in Natal and gives an account of the death of Piet Retief and the Battle of Blood River. He was the only minister to accompany the trekkers on their journey northwards. Many of them disliked him because he had been trained by the London Missionary Society and as he had no formal qualification they felt his ability to administer the sacrament, baptism and Holy Communion was limited.
He ended his days in Pietermaritzburg becoming the minister of the Church of the Covenant in 1840. He died in 1863, seven days after his wife.
Back to the bible itself. It had obviously travelled on the trek with Smit. The inscription in the front is dated at Graaff-Reinet 26th December 1827. This means it was either acquired by him there or presented to him while he was there.
When Michael Prior started to look at the bible in detail as well as the inscription it had clasps to keep it closed. These were black but after careful cleaning they turned out to be silver which made it more interesting. More was to come. One of the clasps was engraved “Pietrus Smit” which meant that the clasps were made for its owner. The final glory of this small bible was the maker’s marks on the clasp, which turned out to be the mark of the Cape Silversmith Theodorus Heegers, (circa 1777 – 1830?). Stephan Welz records in his book on Cape Silver that Heegers worked in Graaff-Reinet from 1829 to1830. Pieces of silver made in Graaff-Reinet are almost unheard of.
This of course all means that this historically important bible went on the Great Trek and was probably used at the burial of Gert Martiz and Piet Retief. Because of the makers marks it is also probably the only piece of Cape Silver that can be definitely said to have been made in Graaff-Reinet. The bible is therefore an important piece of our cultural heritage and has the most wonderful provenance.
During a life time in the world of books and antiques I have been shown a large number of options that the owners believe had been on the Great Trek. Some could never have been on it because they were obviously made later. Others might have been, but there was no way of proving this. I have now finally seen and handled a piece that was on the Great Trek. This once again shows how important the provenance of the piece is.
Prior now showed me a second book, which again from the exterior looked quite ordinary and of no interest. It is a first edition by H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) book entitled Tono Bungay published in London in 1909. The inscription in the front reads “With Best Wishes Ethel Sanders from H.G. Wells” it is therefore an interesting inscribed copy of one of his books. Once again more was to come as below the inscription are two drawings. The first is of a bottle with the words inscribed “this bottle improves with age”. Next there is a drawing of a man and the inscription here reads “this is my uncle when he was quite anonymous”. The final and most interesting inscription reads”when in doubt buy your haberdashery at Wells’ Store Turffontein – he is my brother”. Michael’s eagle eye picked up the name Turffontein and on researching the item found in Anna Smith’s book Johannesburg Street Names (1971).
“The corner opposite the Turffontein Hotel was popularly known as such after a draper named Wells said to be the brother of H.G. Wells … the firm in question if presumably F. Wells and Co., Outfitters 131A Hay Street, Turffontein… as listed in the United Transvaal Directory 1921”.
So another exciting find proving finally that Anna Smith was correct and that Wells’ Corner was actually named after H.G. Wells’ brother. History is amazing! Years after the event pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place proving that there is always something new to be found in history.
Michael and Vanessa Prior have over the years handled many wonderful objects which they have sold to grateful collectors all over the country. I personally believe that one of the reasons they are such good dealers is that they are both passionate collectors. This has helped them find unusual items that others might have overlooked, I think these two books prove this. Anyone interested in old and unusual things must always look at them with great care as finer details may be overlooked. The detail is often more important than the object itself. As I have said before the provenance is extremely important and adds significantly to its value. The Priors and their business Collectables will be exhibiting at the S.A. Antique Dealers Associations Annual fair at the Wanderers Club from 9th to the 11th October 2009. Otherwise visit the SAADA website at www.saada.co.za, for more information about their business in Johannesburg and Hermanus.