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Rare copy of British official’s 1760 book sold for $17K

January 18, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A Colonial British government official’s copy of a rare book detailing France’s holdings in North America at the end of the French and Indian War has been sold for more than $17,000 at a Massachusetts auction.

The 1760 first-edition copy of Thomas Jefferys’ “The Natural and Civil History of the French Dominions in North and South America” was owned by Sir William Johnson, a wealthy fur trader and landowner in New York’s Mohawk Valley who helped Britain wrest control of Canada from France.

The book, with Johnson’s bookplate pasted onto the inside cover and his signature on the title page, was sold for $17,220 at a November auction at Skinner Inc. in Boston to Gary Milan, a retired dentist from the Los Angeles area who collects 18th-century books and military artifacts.

Experts say Johnson’s signed book is a rare item because most of his possessions were lost after being confiscated during the American Revolution. Johnson, the British government’s superintendent of Indian affairs in the American colonies, died in 1774, a year before the war started. Most of his books that did survive into the 20th century were destroyed in a fire at the state Capitol in Albany in 1911.

Johnson’s copy of the Jefferys book contained up-to-date maps of France’s New World holdings, as well as information on climate, trade and Native American tribes in Canada, which the French ceded to Britain under the terms of the 1763 treaty that ended the French and Indian War, the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War fought in Europe.

There are only 15 copies of Jefferys’ books in the collections of public institutions worldwide, and an unknown number in private collections, according to Paul Mercer, special collections librarian at the New York State Library in Albany.

“It’s a rare book in any case, but just to have Johnson’s bookplate and signature makes it that much more rare,” Mercer said.

Bookplates typically contain the book owner’s name. Johnson’s bookplate was his coat of arms, which featured two Native Americans armed with bows and arrows. An adopted member of the Mohawk tribe, Johnson’s high standing among the Iroquois nations was a key factor in Britain’s eventual victory over the French.

“He was way forward of his time in terms of treating the Indians. I think that was one of his greatest attributes,” said Milan, a Detroit native who has been collecting 18th-century items for 60 years.

The name of the book’s previous owner wasn’t disclosed.

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