Collectibles: Pole to Pole

<< Back to Robb Report, May 2007
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Eernest Shackleton failed in his attempt to become the first man to reach the South Pole, but he was responsible for the first book being printed on Antarctica. In 1907, before embarking on what would be the first of two unsuccessful journeys to the South Pole, the British explorer had two members of his crew, Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild, train with a printer in London. When Shackleton’s expedition reached Antarctica, Joyce and Wild, working inside a tiny hut, prepared about 100 copies of Aurora Australis, a 120-page book authored by the crew of the Nimrod and named for the southern lights. The two men had to hold the printing plates over a candle flame to prevent the ink from freezing, and they fashioned the books’ front and back covers from cast-off pieces of Venesta board, a type of laminated wood used then for packing crates. Shackleton expected correctly that the book project would buoy the entire crew’s morale during the dull, dark winter of 1908.

Approximately 60 copies of Aurora Australis still exist, and John Levinson, a 79-year-old retired doctor from Wilmington, Del., owns one of them, the Veal copy, so named because the inside back cover, made from a crate that once contained the meat, is stenciled with the word veal. "Frankly, it doesn’t make for exciting reading," Levinson says of the book. "It’s stories that the men dreamed up, submitted, and bound. But it remains the only book published and put together in Antarctica, period."

Aurora Australis is the prize of Levinson’s library of polar exploration rarities, which Manhattan’s Swann Galleries will sell on May 24. The tome could fetch more than $75,000. "Any copy of Aurora Australis is special, but it is unusual to find one with text from the crates on it," says Jeremy Markowitz, a specialist in Swann’s book department. "Most didn’t have anything written on [their inside covers]." Levinson’s collection, which exceeds 600 volumes, also includes an inscribed copy of Shackleton’s 1909 book The Heart of the Antarctic; first editions of Capt. James Cook’s accounts of his three voyages, the second of which was a search for Antarctica; and the Diary of William Lashly, written in 1938 by a surviving member of the Terra Nova expedition, British captain Robert Scott’s fatal attempt to reach the South Pole. Levinson’s copy includes a three-page letter that Lashly wrote to a former teacher. "Rarely did Lashly sign a book to anyone," Levinson says. "This is an extremely dear book."

Swann’s Markowitz notes that the books’ owner himself is a rarity. "It is unusual for collectors to live their collection as well, but Levinson has been to the North Pole, Antarctica, and the Northwest Passage," he says.

Levinson joined one of the earliest tourist cruises to Antarctica (a 1970 trip offered by Lars-Eric Lindblad) and was elected to two one-year terms as president of the Explorers Club in the mid-1980s. He started forming his library in the early 1990s, after he began serving as a ship physician on polar journeys conducted by the Connecticut tour operator Quark Expeditions. He visited the Arctic and the Antarctic eight times apiece aboard Quark vessels.

"I’m not a religious guy, but when you go to these places, you just wonder," Levinson says. "Me, my wife, and Wally Herbert [a British polar explorer] were once on a glacier in Greenland, 9,000 feet up," he says, referring to an August 1993 Quark trip. "No human had walked on it before. We had the privilege to be up there, and it was overwhelming. If that experience doesn’t raise fundamental questions in your mind, I don’t understand you."

Swann Galleries, 212.254.4710, www.swanngalleries.com

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