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November 12, 2015

Audubon Day speaker discusses Darlington collection “treasure-trove”

Allan Stypeck

Allan Stypeck

John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” may be the best known and most valuable part of the University’s Darlington library collection.

Allan J. Stypeck, noted appraiser and president of Second Story Books, has spent the past year appraising the “treasure trove” that is the Darlington collection. In a keynote talk at the University Library System’s fifth annual Audubon Day celebration, Stypeck placed the prized work in the context of the larger collection given to the University by the Darlington family.

Published by subscription in 1831-39, Audubon’s 435 illustrated plates documented every known species of bird in America. The original cost of the plates alone was $870, Stypeck noted.

As of 2012, there were 120 known complete sets in existence: 107 in institutions and 13 in private hands. In the last 15 years, three sets similar in completeness and condition to the University’s have sold for an average price of $10 million, including the buyer’s premium, Stypeck said.

It’s not confirmed, but the Darlingtons’ copy “might have the historical distinction of being the only set that was ever sold used for less than the asking price at the point of publication,” he said.

While the original owner is unknown, collection records show that Darlington purchased secondhand the four-volume “Birds of America” set for $100 per volume.

At the time the set was gifted to the University in 1925, it was valued at $7,000, Stypeck said.

Money wasn’t the motivation underlying the collection, said Stypeck, who said he tried to think like collector William M. Darlington over the course of valuing the works.

Darlington, a Pittsburgh attorney born in 1815, developed a passion for collecting colonial American history with an emphasis on western Pennsylvania, the Ohio Valley and especially the City of Pittsburgh.

In 1847 Darlington married Mary O’Hara, whose grandfather James O’Hara was George Washington’s quartermaster general and a prominent landowner in western Pennsylvania.

She not only provided the funds to foster Darlington’s passion but was equally enamored of the pursuit. After William’s death in 1889, she and their children continued collecting, Stypeck said.

Darlington’s primary concern wasn’t for profit, “but for academic and historical perspective,” Stypeck said.

“One consistent component I found in the collection was that William Darlington was not one to overlook any necessary additions to his core collection, and pursued any and all items that were available and appropriate —including archival papers, books and manuscripts, maps and atlases, prints, broadsides, photography, newspapers and possibly the rarest painting of the city of Pittsburgh,” an 1806 George Beck illustration believed to be the earliest painting of the city, Stypeck said.

“To his credit, Darlington devoted his time to creating a comprehensive, tactile history of the exploration and development of western Pennsylvania and, in particular, the city of Pittsburgh.”

Darlington commissioned a draftsman to copy the King of England’s original maps of western Pennsylvania and the Ohio valley. He personally created handwritten copy books of Fort Pitt business transactions from 1752 to 1782.

He published the journals of Christopher Gist, the British surveyor who accompanied George Washington’s expeditions in the Ohio Valley in 1753-54 and who reportedly twice saved the future president’s life.

The collection also includes documents related to early settlement and Indian relations, such as  materials associated with Conrad Weiser, a Pennsylvania German Quaker pioneer and farmer who served as an interpreter and diplomat to local Native Americans, especially the Iroquois nation.

“Darlington had accessibility and the funds at that time to buy the key documents, which were basically the foundation of the history of the French and Indian War, which is significant to the area,” Stypeck said. “I admire this man for so many different reasons: It wasn’t just for the money. He really understood and looked for the right documents.”

Among the documents are several letters by George Washington. One, written in April 1754 to Pennsylvania Gov. James Hamilton, described the loss of a fort being built under the command of Ohio Company agent William Trent.

Five hundred Canadians, French and Indians came down on the fort, forcing its 36 English militiamen to abandon the project, Stypeck said. The French took over the site and began building Fort Duquesne on the foundation.

“What we have here is the first letter ever written by Washington  identifying the French refusal to allow the English to build a fort: This is the beginning of the French and Indian War.”

Another, dated May 29, 1754, to Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, was written the day after Washington ambushed a French force at Jumonville Glen. “This was the first altercation between the French and English that started the French and Indian War, which later escalated into the Seven Years War globally,” he said.

“What you’re looking at, from a historical perspective, is the beginning of seven years of global confrontation that changed the entire power structure of the world — and it all starts here in this area in Pennsylvania,” he said.

“This is a magnificent collection,” Stypeck said, urging his audience to view the library’s digitized collection at “You are going to see one of the most comprehensive collections of mid-1700s documents related to this area. It’s a great read.”

Treasures remain to be uncovered in the collection that’s archived here at Pitt, Stypeck said. “There’s probably really historically significant items to be found,” he said.

“If you have the time and wherewithal, this a great place to go.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow   

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 6

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