A collection of more than 600 rare books dubbed the "last great private library" in New Zealand goes under the hammer in Auckland next week. The books, collected by Auckland naturalist and scholar Arthur Pycroft, who died in 1971, include a complete set of Cook's Voyages, published in the 1770s, a first edition of the first novel published in New Zealand, Taranaki: A Tale of the War by Henry Stoney (1861), and a two-volume set of Captain Scott's journals from his last expedition, published in 1914.
Former Auckland auctioneer Brian Grosinski, who has written the catalogue for the auction, recalls that the most recent significant book sale, the Henderson Collection, from Wellington, was in 1983, nearly 30 years ago. "The Pycroft Collection is really the most important sale in New Zealand since then and there probably won't be another one like this one. It's the last of the old-fashioned gentleman-amateur collections."
Pycroft, who was born in 1875, was educated at the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell and Auckland Grammar School, before joining NZ Railways at the age of 15. He eventually became a stationmaster in the Bay of Islands and rose to a senior management position in Auckland. It was a time when a career with the railways was highly regarded.
But natural history and ornithology (along with taxidermy) were his true enthusiasms, interests he developed during explorations of Hen Island, Little Barrier, the Kermadecs and Melanesia.
He also joined the Auckland Institute at Auckland Museum in 1896, where he served on the council for more than 40 years.
Although Pycroft took long periods of leave for his explorations, he really came into his own at the age of 50, when he received a substantial inheritance from family in England. He retired - his family home was a 4ha block in St Heliers, in a street now called Pycroft Place - and went at his collecting and research apace. He was a member of the "Moa Searching Committee", which involved searching for skeletons at various sites in New Zealand, and a newly discovered species of petrel was named in his honour: Pterodroma pycrofti.
From today's perspective, Pycroft's taxidermy skills had a downside. In 2006, Auckland artist Hamish Foote had an exhibition called The Feathered Drawer, which included a painting called Pycroft's Supper, a narrative of an actual incident from about 100 years before when a bird hunter brought the carcass of a huia to Pycroft. He skinned the bird, then asked his housekeeper to cook it for his supper. Within two years, huia had vanished from the land forever.
The Pycroft auction also features albums of photographs of early Auckland and Northland, an original photograph of the Discovery signed by Ernest Shackleton, a collection of rare books recording Pacific voyages and anthropology, shipping and maritime history, and early New Zealand exploration - including the extremely rare Rambles in New Zealand by John Carne Bidwill (1841).
Another category includes chronicles of the NZ Company, emigration and the Wakefield Settlements, before moving on to colonisation, missionaries and the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori history, rights and land purchase, and early Maori language publications, including an 1838 New Testament and an 1852 translated version of Robinson Crusoe. Lot 228, Te Tohunga, a 1907 German translation of ancient Maori legends and traditions by Wilhelm Dittmer, features a chamois leather cover adorned with a "fine coloured full moko face" on the cover.
The final day of the sale offers some fine examples of New Zealand natural history and botany, including seven books by Buller, with whom Pycroft corresponded, mountaineering and sport, early tourism, children's books and Auckland newspapers from 1844-74.
The catalogue reveals some intriguing secrets. Lot 384, in the mountaineering section, is The Conquest of Mt Cook written in 1915 by the first woman to climb the mountain, Australian Freda du Faur. A newspaper obituary inside the book reveals that on her return to Melbourne, poor Freda succumbed to "introspection and delusions".
What: The Pycroft Collection of Rare Books
Where and when: Art + Object, 3 Abbey St, Newton, November 2-3 at 6.30pm