Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010

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On the origin of a windfall

On the origin of a windfall
Mary Ann Allen Marcus '52 with her “little green book”: a first edition of Darwin's “On the Origin of Species.”

A first edition of Darwin's seminal work, hiding in plain sight

By Whit Richardson '02


Mary Ann Allen Marcus '52 refers to it now as her “little green book,” but for decades it was just another old volume ensconced in her late husband's collection of geology, glaciology and mountaineering books.

The book likely would have sat undisturbed for many more years if it wasn't for her daughter-in-law, Vanessa, and her eagle eye.

During a Christmas visit in 2009, Vanessa was on a couch in the living room. As her gaze drifted over the bookshelves with their eclectic mix of books and art, one volume caught her attention. It looked old and worn, but Vanessa could make out the word “Darwin” embossed in gold on a green spine.

The book jogged a memory. She had recently read about a first edition of Charles Darwin's “On the Origin of Species” discovered in the guest bathroom of an English country home. What caused Vanessa to leap from the couch to investigate was that the book had sold at auction for $170,000.

Darwin first published his seminal theory of evolution in 1859. The first edition, of which only 1,250 copies were printed, sold out on the first day and copies have become prized possessions for bibliophiles.

Vanessa took the book from the shelf. It had a green cloth cover and the spine read “On the Origin of Species” and “Darwin.” She flipped to the page with the copyright information. There it was: London, 1859.

Marcus's son spent several days confirming the book was a first edition. “It took awhile for us to believe that, unbeknownst to us, we had on our shelves a first edition of such a significant book,” Marcus wrote in a letter she sent to the auction house Christie's. “How could this have happened?”

From what Marcus can piece together, here's how the book came into the possession of her late husband, Melvin G. Marcus.

In 1953, shortly after graduating from Connecticut College with an English degree, Mary Ann Allen married Melvin Marcus. The couple spent time in Korea and Japan while he was in the U.S. Air Force. When they returned to the United States in the late 1950s, they visited her cousin in Syracuse, N.Y., who had inherited their grandfather's vast book collection.

Knowing that Melvin — by this time a graduate student in geology at the University of Chicago — was a scientist, Mary Ann's cousin allowed him to select a dozen or so books from the library as a sort of belated wedding gift. Along with several volumes on science and exploration, Melvin chose Darwin's classic. “He thought everyone should have a copy of 'The Origin of Species' by Darwin,” Mrs. Marcus says. “But he didn't have the knowledge to look inside and to realize it was a first edition.”

For the next 50 years it traveled with the couple as Melvin's teaching career took them to Rutgers, University of Michigan, West Point, Canterbury University in New Zealand, and finally to Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Mel would pack up his science library and send it off to the next place and there it would be on the shelf,” hiding in plain sight, Marcus says.

After her daughter-in-law's discovery last Christmas, Marcus turned the book over to Christie's, which sold it at auction in June. “Although I would love to say it was something to hand down to the kids, who are teachers and interested in those things, I didn't feel I was the proper person to take care of it,” she says. “It should be in a collection some place where it's really being preserved.”

It didn't fetch as much as the copy found in the English bathroom. It had some wear and other first editions had emerged since then, but it still sold for $52,000. Since Christie's took $10,000 off the top and, Marcus adds, she hasn't paid taxes on the sale, she expects she'll net $37,000 in the end.

“That's still an exciting amount for a little green book you didn't know you had,” she says.


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