"Overly excitable" is not really how anyone would describe me. I like to play it cool and reserved, detached and pragmatic. There have been those few rare instances where my enthusiasm has overcome my reason, I have been called out on the error of my ways, and I grudgingly admit my (now blisteringly obvious) mistake, and move on... (Make no mistake though, I am eternally grateful to be called out and correct my errors!)
Such is the reason one particular book has been in the office for almost two years, unlisted. I had thought the handwritten letter signed Alfred Hitchcock was that Alfred Hitchcock, not stopping to check that it looked nothing like the director's signature or handwriting, and the director's middle name does not start with the letter M. The timeline matched up ok, but really nothing else. Why's there gotta be more than one Alfred Hitchcock??
There were a couple previous owner's signatures on the front-free endpage, one R.C. Hitchcock, and Paul somebody... I couldn't figure out what Paul's last name was.
Until, that is, I just picked up the book again a week ago on a whim and recognized it immediately as Paul MORPHY, the legendary American chess master! A quick search confirms that yeah, that's his signature all right.
Truth is I should have recognized it so much sooner because we have a mid-19th century chess book about Morphy's games, and several other chess books, some signed, from the estate that we've been working with. But the book itself has absolutely nothing to do with chess! It's The Book of British Ballads, circa 1853, for heaven's sake.
I am rarely content when presented with the smallest of additional clues. Mr. Morphy signed his name and wrote "from a friend. Boston, June 3rd, 1859". He was a month shy of 22, and had just returned from his triumphant trip to England and Europe, hailed as the world's chess champion.
Upon his return to America, the accolades continued as Morphy toured the major cities on his way home. At the University of the City of New York, on May 29, 1859, John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren, ended a testimonial presentation by proclaiming, "Paul Morphy, Chess Champion of the World". In Boston, at a banquet attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, Boston mayor Frederic W. Lincoln Jr., and Harvard president James Walker, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes toasted "Paul Morphy, the world's Chess Champion".
-- from wikipedia, citing from Paul Morphy: Pride and Sorrow of Chess, by David Lawson
If only Morphy had named who his friend was, or his friend had written an inscription of his/her own. Presumably if it had been someone notable, they would have inscribed it personally; so I don't think Longfellow gave this to Morphy. But it doesn't seem like he spent much time in Boston. The banquet mentioned likely had a bunch more attendees, one of whom may very well have gifted this to him. It would of course help to know the exact date of that banquet, but the timeline seems to make sense. But also, why The Book of British Ballads?
Our sale was swift and sure, because the offer we received was several times over what I had started the auction, and eBay auctions can be fickle even with incredible items like this.
The price we realized was possibly not so far off from what we could have expected if the letter had actually been from Hitchcock the film director, without the Morphy association.
My initial enthusiasm was misplaced, but justified in the end.
This really is an endlessly fascinating business.