A visit to a South Island home to assess two paintings led to a discovery of a collection of rare books. Now they're for sale by auction. Jane Phare reports.
Webb's head of art Charles Ninow visited a home in Canterbury last month to assess two paintings, a Rita Angus portrait and an oil painting New Zealand artist Leo Bensemann.
It was there he spotted what looked like a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on a bookshelf, lined up with what turned out to be a collection of rare and old books. The books, some dating back to the 1700s, were from the personal library of Lawrence Baigent, a former editor at Caxton Press, and Robert Erwin, a librarian and historian.
The pair were well known in the cultural scene in mid-century Christchurch and were avid collectors of art, books and rarities, later bequeathing their art collection to Christchurch Art Gallery. The book collection had been given to the owner of the paintings Ninow went to assess.
"The vendor was a friend of Baigent and Erwin," Ninow said. "I saw a copy of The Great Gatsby on the bookshelf. I opened the book to the first page, where the name L.A. Baigent was inscribed in the top right-hand corner. Slightly further in, I saw that it was printed
in 1925. At that moment I knew I was on to something special."
Ninow, suspecting the collection would disappear to a second-hand book shop, set about researching the provenance and putting together a catalogue.
The collection includes first editions of Katherine Mansfield's The Aloe, published posthumously by Mansfield's husband in 1930 with a limited print run of 750;
Moses Harris' The Aurelian, 1766, with its exquisite coloured drawings of butterflies, moths and plants; George Swain's 1790 title Gramina Pascua; and Leo Bensemann's 1937 Fantastica, a collection of drawings by the artist. The book is the first of a print run of only 125 books and is signed by the artist.
Three titles by New Zealand poet James K. Baxter included a three-page draft of Baxter's poem The Farmhand, with annotations and corrections made by Baxter as he polished the poem.
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"We were amazed to find a type-written manuscript by James J Baxter in one of these books. It just fell out when we opened it. It has probably been decades since anyone has seen it."
• Lots from the library of Lawrence Baigent and Robert Erwin are currently for sale through an online auction at Webb's. All lots are offered without reserve. Bidding closes at 8.30pm on Monday, May 10.