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William Reese, leading seller of rare books, dies at 62

NEW HAVEN — William Reese, whose encyclopedic knowledge of historic American books and manuscripts made him a towering figure among rare-book sellers, died June 4 at his childhood home in Havre de Grace, Md. He was 62.

His wife, Dorothy Hurt, said the cause was prostate cancer.

For nearly 40 years, from his treasure house of a by-appointment-only store on a quiet block in New Haven, Mr. Reese shaped tastes, cultivated collectors, advised museums and libraries, and made and moved markets. Many of the nation’s leading collections of Americana bear his stamp.

Mr. Reese relied on the breadth and depth of his scholarship to grasp the import of all sorts of seeming arcana.

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“I always had a concept as a person dealing in Americana that I was selling evidence in one form or another,” he told an interviewer in 2010.

In a video for the American Antiquarian Society, a key beneficiary of his expertise, he said, “The object can sit for 200 years, and nobody can know why it’s needed, no scholar can put it in context, until that moment when that piece of paper tells a story, provides a connection.”

Mr. Reese’s first big sale came in 1974, when he was a sophomore at Yale. He bought an old map at a furniture auction for $800, thinking it was a Native American piece. It turned out to be the fourth-oldest map of Mexico City, created around 1565 to show Aztec land holdings in a legal dispute between middle-class farmers and the emperor’s descendants. The university’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library asked Mr. Reese how much he wanted for it. Thinking fast, he blurted out a number equivalent to the final three years of his undergraduate tuition — about $18,000.

“They immediately said ‘fine,’ and he got his first lesson that he had underpriced something,” said George Miles, the Beinecke’s current curator of Western Americana. It was a mistake Mr. Reese would not repeat often.

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William Sherman Reese was born in Havre de Grace to William Blain Reese and Katherine (Jackson) Reese. His father was a marketer for Coca-Cola; his mother’s family owned the New Haven Register. Black Angus cattle were raised on the Reese farm, but William had no desire to be a cattleman. Instead, he published his first bibliographic study, “Six Score: The 120 Best Books on the Range Cattle Industry,” while a student.

Shortly after graduating from Yale in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Mr. Reese bought a brownstone near campus and made it the home of William Reese Co. A few years later, he expanded into the brownstone next door.

The two houses are lined with shelves holding more than 18,000 rare volumes, their spines a lustrous study in earth tones. They included the first printing of the entire Bible in the Hawaiian language ($7,500), an 11-panel panoramic photo of San Francisco taken in 1877 by Eadweard Muybridge ($48,000), and Amerigo Vespucci’s 1504 missive “Mundus Novus,” in which Vespucci named the New World ($427,500).

Mr. Reese spent a good deal of the pre-Internet 1980s barnstorming around the country in a station wagon with his bookseller friends. “Any town that we hit, we looked at the yellow pages, and if there was an antiquarian bookstore, we’d hit it,” said Terry Halladay, the literature department manager at William Reese Co.

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In a cinder-block garage in Stroudsburg, Pa., Mr. Reese discovered a trove of pamphlets printed in Kentucky in the 1820s. “There was a book that was the six jillionth printing of Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man,’ ” Halladay said, “but it turned out it was the first literary work printed in English-speaking North America west of the Alleghenies.”

Mr. Reese, a born storyteller whose booming voice gave him an air of easy authority, not only knew American history and the history of the documents that comprised that history; he also knew the history of the sale of those documents.

“You’d mention a book and Bill would tell you what it sold for in the Brinley auction in the 19th century and then what it sold for at the Hoe auction in the early 20th century and at the Streeter auction in the 1960s,” Miles said.