Marie Sobalvarro, Harvard resident and assistant town administrator, said it was “wacky” what happened when she was doing her usual Saturday shopping at TIOLI (accent on the “O”) at the Transfer Station on a cold day in February. Underneath a box of mugs, she spotted a “massive” maroon folder, which she pulled out, ever on the lookout for things made in the U.S.A., which usually means pre-1950. What she held in her hands was a bit older than 1950—say 200 years or so—according to the Roman numerals, and the French writing told her this was definitely not made in America. “It’s old,” she said to herself, “Take it.”
The title page of the book found at the Transfer Station. (Courtesy photo)
Sobalvarro has long been a devotee of the TIOLI (“Take It or Leave It”), and she often finds its stock serendipitous—furniture for a new house, craft materials for her elementary school kids, binders for them in middle school. In her office at Town Hall, she has an entire shelf dedicated to “treasures from the dump.” But never had she found anything like this mysterious, but clearly old and possibly valuable, book.
An afternoon spent with Google gave Sobalvarro some information. The folio’s first page announces “Des Festes Donnes Par la Ville de Paris”—a marriage festival in Paris. The Roman numeral date, 1739, and a picture of a royal coat of arms led Sobalvarro to learn that the wedding celebration was that of Louise Elisabeth of France, eldest daughter of Louis XV, and Dom Phillipe, infant (prince) and grand admiral of Spain, held on the 29th and 30th of August, 1739. Successive pages show engravings from the wedding.
Sobalvarro said a search on ABE, a rare books site, turned up one copy of the book, listed at $15,000. She discovered that a page is missing from her book, an engraving of fireworks; coincidentally, a single folio page of fireworks is in a British museum. “Wacky,” she said again.
Sobalvarro took pictures of pages in the folio and sent them to Ruth Rogers, curator of special collections at Clapp Library, Wellesley College, Sobalvarro’s alma mater. Rogers came to Harvard to get the book from Sobalvarro, and she stopped by the Harvard Press office hoping a note in the paper might help find whoever left it at TIOLI. She would like to find out more about its provenance from the previous owner.
In a later email and phone conversation, Rogers provided more information. She commented on the unusually large size of the publication, a double folio that measures 25 inches high and 19 inches wide and when open is 37 1/2 inches across. Bound in red morocco with gilt spine and edges, it has an armorial binding, which means there is a royal coat of arms of the city of Paris (a fleur-de-lis with a ship in the middle) on the upper and lower covers. Since most publications were not bound until the 19th century, because of cost, this is a further indication that it was owned by a member of the royal family.
It is definitely a limited deluxe edition, with large print, very high quality paper, and expensive engravings, said Rogers. The publication date is 1740, which suggests the folio was printed after the wedding, perhaps as a commemorative gift to the guests. Rogers said it is impossible to know how many copies were printed; she guesses 200 or so. About 10 pages of engravings depict scenes of the festival, further suggesting the book was done after the wedding itself. Rogers confirmed Sobalvarro’s research showing a page missing but said there’s no way of knowing whether the single plate showing fireworks that is in a British museum is from this book.
According to Rogers, there are three other copies of this festival book in the U.S., one of which is at Yale University. The fourth now resides in the special collections in the rare book department in Clapp Library at Wellesley College. Rogers said a bookplate shows this folio was once owned by Anatole France, the famous French author, so it probably didn’t come to this country until the 20th century.
Rogers said this 18th-century festival book fits perfectly in the library’s special collections department—amid the likes of leaves from the Gutenberg Bible. She said the department continually uses the rare books as research in a humanities course to show the culture of a particular historical period. This folio will be a perfect illustration of the opulence and pomp among the royalty in mid-18th-century France. “This is an example of the excesses that ultimately led to the French Revolution,” said Rogers.
Sobalvarro’s advice—other than to shop local at TIOLI—is that if you are cleaning out, don’t throw away items that might be valuable before finding out more about them.