The Columns

Rare by Association Two tiny, leather-bound volumes in Special Collections feature signatures and bookplates that make them extraordinarily rare.

— by on December 6th, 2017

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The exquisite, leather-bound, diminutive pieces featured in this story are not particularly rare in themselves however, the association with one of America’s most important and well-known families elevates the two 1749 pieces to an uncommonly high level of rarity.

In preparing for a Latin class presentation on Cicero in the fall of 2016, I was working with Adrienne Hagen, visiting assistant professor of classics. While reviewing the fairly extensive and rich collection of early classics by and related to Cicero in the Special Collections vault, we made a startling and wonderful discovery. Volume VI and Volume XX of the multi-volume set of “Ciceronis Opera” (the works of Cicero) bear the beautiful and distinctive bookplate of John Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington.

Adding even more excitement and intrigue to the discovery is the distinctive signature of Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the granddaughter of John Parke Custis and the wife of General Robert E. Lee, president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) from 1865-1870.

The two small volumes became part of the Washington and Lee library collection when George Washington Custis (G.W.C.) Lee left the president’s office in 1897. He had held the position since his father’s death in 1870. Presumably, the books were part of the Washingtonian Collection that Mary Custis Lee had acquired when she inherited Arlington House.

Upon federal occupation of Arlington House in 1861, Mary Custis Lee had much of the Washington-related material removed to Richmond for safekeeping. The items ultimately were shipped to Lexington, but prior to the 1864 Hunter’s Raid of Lexington, the Washington family treasures were removed to the village of Brownsburg, on the outskirts of Lexington, for additional security measures. The recent provenance of the pieces is startlingly clear from the ownership stamps and signatures present on both volumes.

Although the pieces were intact and in fair condition, considering their age, some stabilization work, including the repair and restoration of the bindings and the fabrication of custom linen clamshell boxes, was undertaken during summer and early fall of 2017. That work was generously underwritten by Lisa R. Moore of Staunton, Virginia. Moore, former vice-regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, last year graciously funded the restoration of George Washington’s copy of “The Beauties of Johnson” (1782), which also bears the signatures of George Washington and Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

Although the provenance of the Cicero volumes through the Lee family is quite clear, questions remain as to the ownership of the volumes prior to John Parke Custis. A cursory examination of the volumes shows that the bookplate of John Parke Custis has actually been pasted over a previous bookplate. Further study needs to be undertaken to determine if Custis (known as “Jacky”), who died just prior to his 27th birthday in 1781 at Yorktown after the British surrender, inherited the books from his father, Daniel Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s first husband) or from his stepfather, George Washington.

Perhaps the bookplate that lies underneath John Parke Custis’ bookplate will tell the rest of the story. Upon his death at such a young age, Jacky’s widow and children returned to Mount Vernon for a brief period. It is likely that the Cicero volumes, now residing in Washington and Lee’s Special Collections vault, were added to the Mount Vernon Library by Jacky’s devoted mother, Martha Washington. That lineal association from the Washington family at Mount Vernon to the Lee family of Lexington makes our two Cicero volumes extraordinarily rare.