December 22, 2013
HOW TO VALUE A RARE EARLY PIECE OF AMERICANA
When traveling and purchasing rare books from estates and libraries, it is impossible sometimes to realize the value of every single book one encounters or even buys. This is especially true with ephemera that has suffered from the ravages of time, and whose importance can easily be overlooked. However, that is the fun of research! The book below was originally purchased from a house in Virginia whose contents descended in the family for 200 years.
The book languished on my shelf before I finally sat down to examine it. I initially dismissed it as early music instruction book- and one that was incomplete- the type of work which rarely excites interest or brings any money. However, as I started researching it through the standard databases such as Worldcat.org, I immediately saw how rare it was. In fact, Worldcat cites no other known copies. Surprisingly, there wasn’t even a copy in the Library of Congress, which since the 1790 Copyright law, has served as a repository of deposit copies of all printed works (albeit it is conceivable this was printed in 1790 or even a bit earlier and escaped that legal requirement).
What makes the book fascinating is the author/composer Alexander Reinagle, who was an English-born American composer, organist, and theater musician, but who journeyed in 1786 to try his fortune as a professional musician in the new United States of America (see Wikipedia). George Washington was one of his admirers and Reinagle composed important pieces which were performed on the way to Washington’s inauguration. In fact, Alexander Reinagle taught George Washington’s step-granddaughter (Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (March 31, 1779 – July 15, 1852), known as Nelly) to play the pianoforte and he likely used this very book! During during George Washington’s presidency, Nelly helped entertain guests at the first Presidential Mansion on Cherry Street in New York City, and therefore it is very conceivable that these pieces were among the first pieces of music ever performed for the guests of the President of the United States.
That fascinating history behind this simple, worn book of piano lessons, therefore requires a re-evaluation in terms of its price. There are condition issues, including a missing last leaf that must be taken into consideration. Still, this was a very cheaply printed, ephemeral production and it is remarkable that it even survived at all. Pricing this important piece of American music history, without any comparable examples recorded (let alone sold), is as much art as science.
PRINTED c. 1790s. LIKELY THE ONLY SURVIVING COPY OF AN IMPORTANT WORK OF EARLY AMERICAN MUSIC PUBLISHING
Reinagle, Alexander. Twenty four short & easy pieces : intended as the first lessons for the piano forte s.d.s.l.; [Baltimore] : Printed and sold at Carrs music store Baltimore., [between 1790 and 1800]. Oblong 8vo., 23.5 x 16 cm., first two lvs. detached but present, wanting last leaf with XXIII-IV as indicated on the title and ending on XXII; original string holding pages together, with wear, thumbing, staining as depicted. Overall, a remarkable survivor in any condition and EXTREMELY RARE- no copies of this Carrs imprint listed in Worldcat with the only similar work being the c. 1806 second set of pieces. The Library of Congress holds only the earlier 1780 London imprint. THIS IS LIKELY THE ONLY SURVIVING COPY OF A FASCINATING WORK OF EARY AMERICAN MUSIC PUBLISHING. $3500.00
VI, Allegretto and VII, Allegro present here are reproduced in Maurice Hinson’s Music for the Washingtons : a collection of keyboard pieces and songs performed in Philadelphia during the early days of the young republic Belwin Mills, 1988.