Multiple books belonging to Thomas Jefferson were discovered by a man who was digging through a dumpster in Nevada in 2014; however, it would be years before he learned their origin and worth.
Max Brown was involved in a community service project in Incline Village on the shores of Lake Tahoe when a collection of 1980s cassette tapes caught his eye while going through a dumpster, the Sacramento Bee reported.
He then noticed a substantial pile of worn books, and soon thereafter it began to rain.
Brown grabbed about 15 books, which is all he could carry, and headed back to his car and left the area narrowly avoiding a snowstorm that would fall that night.
The volumes remaining in the dumpster were likely ruined by the precipitation.
Six months later, Brown happened to look inside one of the tomes and noticed “from the library of Thomas Jefferson” inscribed on the open page.
A book appraiser told him the inscription was fake, but after catching a random episode of “Pawn Stars” months later, which featured an authentic Jefferson book, Brown started to doubt the appraiser’s view.
He was able to confirm that the third president had in fact owned and rebound at least two of the books, Pierre Charron’s “De la Sagesse,” Volumes II and III. The treatise is a 17th-century meditation on morality and wisdom.
“More clues emerged,” according to the Sacramento Bee. “Jefferson had a distinctive pattern of initialing the pages of his personal books, and sometimes inserted the first page of a text into the middle of the book while rebinding it. Both idiosyncrasies were present in Brown’s books.”
A staff member at Jefferson’s presidential library was able to conclude, based on an email correspondence, the finder’s books were authentic.
Unfortunately for Brown, he had gotten in a tight spot financially and sold off those two particular volumes.
“Eight-thousand dollars seemed like a lot at the time, but it’s nowhere near the value of American history,” Brown told the Bee.
Through some investigative work, he was able to trace Jefferson’s purchase of the Charron books to 1818 and map their ownership almost to the present day.
By the turn of the 20th century, they had become part of the wealthy Kellogg family collection, where they remained at least until 1976 when a descendant named Violet Cherry last registered them.
After Cherry’s death, the trail went cold.
Earlier this month, Brown was able to reunite living relatives of Cherry with some of the Jefferson books he had not auctioned or sold and some photo albums he also had picked up.
According to the Library of Congress’ website, Jefferson sold 6,487 books to Congress in 1815 to replace the library’s original collection, which was burned by the British during the War of 1812.
The selling price was $23,950, which would be about $326,000 in today’s dollars.
The former president extolled the breadth of his collection while making the offer to sell in a letter writing: “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
He had picked up many of the volumes while serving as a minister to France in the 1780s.
Shortly after making the sale, Jefferson proclaimed that “I cannot live without books,” and began a second collection, which also reached several thousand in number.
The later collection was sold at an auction in 1829 following his death to help satisfy creditors.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.