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Title and land deeds survive in abundance. They are often large sheets of particularly sturdy parchment that have escaped the ravages of time that destroy a lot of other early paper counterparts and ephemera. They are also quite attractive, filled with meticulous calligraphy and generally remain a very neglected area of collecting. I am often offered vellum deeds or asked how much they are worth. Surprisingly, most have very little monetary value in the market unless they are signed by important people, are particularly early, or can shed some light on an interesting household. Still, any old deed should be properly evaluated as some can fetch substantial sums. For example, a deed to Mohawk land at Schenectady, New York to Johannis Vedder, signed by 3 Mohawks with their totem signatures, recently got $18,000 at a rare book auction.
This recently purchased 1694 New York deed is not in the high value category of Indian deeds, but it is of scholarly interest. It conveys a water lot of Peter Sinclair, a mariner on the south side of Pearl Street. Wait, but Pearl Street does not touch the water? Well, it once did. In fact, it was the original eastern shoreline of the lower part of Manhattan Island, until the latter half of the 18th century when landfill over the course of several hundred years has extended the shoreline roughly 700–900 feet further into the East River, first to Water Street and later to Front Street.
Besides affording a lesson in early Manhattan geography, if not urban planning, it also gives insight into early immigrant communities. According to Joyce Goodfriend’s “Before the Melting Pot” (1994): “Religious persuasion may also have influenced the marriage choices of British immigrants to New York City. Because of the doctrinal similarity between the Presbyterian church and the Dutch Reformed Church, dissenters may have found it relatively easy to marry into Dutch families. Three Scottish men, for example, married Dutch women in New York City. ” One of those Scotsman, RobertSinclair, married Mary Duycking in the New York City Dutch Reformed Church in 1683. “Sinclair‘s life history shows how a British newcomer was incorporated into a Dutch kinship network in New York City.”
I have had numerous enquiries over the years to evaluate and appraise old manuscripts. Certainly, I come across my fair share of antiphonals, graduals and choir books that once graced innumerable churches in Spain, Italy and Europe. Given their large size, the incredibly resilient vellum upon which they were written, and perhaps the respect (not always) accorded to obviously religious books, a lot have survived.
The value of such a manuscript is quite complicated and here I cannot of course go into all the particulars regarding the age, style of decoration, illuminations etc. that factor into their value. As an illustration, below is a recent one that passed through my hands- a rather elegant late 15th to 16th century Spanish antiphonal. It was almost complete with a large number pages (234 in total), albeit at some point, as is often the case, the finest pages were likely removed as specimens of the illuminated art. Still, many very attractive pen-work initials survived in Mudejar style that reflect the artwork of the individual Moors or Muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Iberia after the Christian Reconquista.
One thing that I do not do is appraise these manuscripts as the value of an average individual page multiplied by the number of pages. These are what I consider “book breaker” calculations and it is not something that I even consider. Many beautiful books have been broken over the years for their plates as well as fine atlases dismembered for their individual framable maps. Thankfully, given the economics of the trade, this has become less of an issue as complete preserved copies are often worth more as a whole than the some of their parts. However, I do find the practice continues with antiphonal and liturgical manuscripts and the economics of selling individual pages at modest prices still favors tearing such books apart.
I will write here a bit of bibliophilic heresy (I know brace yourself!) because while I do not condone the practice of breaking these manuscripts or evaluate them on that basis, I do not condemn it either. Many of these manuscripts are incomplete, and single examples (given the large surviving numbers) generally do not have singular importance in terms of what they add to our cultural or historical understanding of the period. Also, in times past, dealers like Otto Ege, who made a controversial practice of dismantling medieval manuscripts and selling the pages individually, also served the interest of scholarship in having some examples (even fragments) dispersed to many universities and a wider audience of students. Therefore, I cannot say today, given the seemingly widespread lack of interest in objects of culture in general, that something is not gained by having individual vellum leaves from such manuscripts grace ordinary living room walls.
I was recently selling a NYC coop, feeling overwhelmed at the amount of paperwork and due diligence necessary to transfer ownership of shares, when I was offered a medieval deed. It is a relatively small and simple document, when a man could transfer his earthly possessions- or in this case half his landholdings- on a mere document only 7 x 3″ inches in size. It opens simply in Latin: To all [men] present and future…
So, what is the value of a document like this from the 14th century? Surprisingly, they can be collected for rather modest sums. Here are a couple records for other similar documents pulled from the ABPC manuscript database – a subscriber database that is an essential tool for examining past auction records of comparable books and documents and substantiating a fair market value.
England – _ KENT. – Document. Deed of Gift. [23 Feb 1411]. No size or length given. William George conveys a house in the village of Shynglewelle [sic]. Parchment. In Latin. Stained. – Winter, Apr 12, 2006, lot 294, £140 ($248)
England – _ KENT. – Document. Deed of Gift. [12 Mar 1398]. No size or length given. John Spernor de Cobham & John Topleche convey to Simon Lepy a plot of land in Shyngled Well [sic] .Parchment. In Latin. Stained. – Illus in cat – Winter, Apr 12, 2006, lot 293, £240 ($424)
True, this one is perhaps a bit earlier than some of the examples listed above (and dates to the early part of the 14th century). However, at auction it would at most reasonably fall into the $400-500 range and perhaps a bit less as it is missing its original hanging seal.
To me that is rather remarkable: this small and ephemeral document has escaped the ravages of time for 700 years and is only worth approx. $500? Thankfully, it is written on vellum, a strong and utilitarian material which aided its survival. Still, the manuscript provides insight into paleography (the study of ancient and historical handwriting), English medieval history, early legal history, and when framed is a rather remarkable and impactful object for the pleasure of both the eye and mind. Perhaps old Latin documents are bit too erudite for most and that has kept the prices low, but for the keen collector they are a bargain that will not last in the years ahead. And certainly, I should send one to my real estate lawyer to show him how simple a document could be 😉
[ENGLISH MEDIEVAL DEED] Early 14th century. [Incipit] Sciant p[re]sentes & fut[ur]i q[uo]d ego Robert de edui? dedi concessi & hac p[re]senti carta mea confirmaui Simoni filio… A fine medieval example of a deed of gift bequeathing half of his lands to his son Simon.. 7 x 3 inches on vellum, evidence of attached seal at lower center. With scarce 14th-15th century English explanatory text to verso. Small holes but generally very good.