Old Trade Secrets

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
While eighteenth-century monarchs may have lacked the restraining orders and nondisclosure agreements available to today’s press-shy corporate chieftains, they possessed one tool the modern executive can only dream of: the ability to censor by fiat. That was the course Portuguese king João V chose when his advisers became alarmed by the 1711 publication of a book reporting on the nation’s highly profitable sugar industry and gold mines in Brazil. Eager to keep such sensitive information out of the hands of colonial rivals, João ordered the book suppressed.

Only seven copies of Cultura e opulencia do Brasil por suas drogas e minas— written by Italian Jesuit João Andreoni and published under the pseudonym André João Antonil—are known to have survived. The book’s rarity and the story of its suppression have made it one of the most sought-after tomes for libraries and collectors of early Americana—including the John Carter Brown Library, which holds one of the world’s best collections of colonial Brazilian materials.

JCB director Norman Fiering was reminded of the library’s deficiency last fall during a visit to the Bibliothèque National in Paris. Seeing a copy of Cultura e opulencia on display, Fiering remarked that he’d always wished the JCB could secure a copy. In response, he says, the Bibliothèque’s curator informed him that an original copy was going up for auction at Sotheby’s in London on November 14. “That book belongs here and no-where else,” Fiering thought.

While Sotheby’s estimated the book’s value somewhere between $80,000 and $110,000, Fiering says he knew the library would be competing for the book with a familiar party—José Mindlin, a prominent Brazilian industrialist and book collector who was once, ironically, on the JCB’s board. “He’s been searching for [the book] all his life,” Fiering says. “It was painful to go up against him. But it’s something we had to do. There’s a limit to gentlemanly courtesies.”

In the end the library’s bid of $159,000 took the nondescript 200-page octavo bound in unadorned vellum—the largest expenditure on a single book in the library’s modern history. (The JCB and its budget are independent of the University.) “We were prepared to go higher,” Fiering says, “so we really feel we got a bargain.”

With the text of Cultura e opulencia available on the Web and in modern printings, Fiering doesn’t expect scholars to come clambering to the library for a chance to study the book. (The public will likely get an opportunity to glimpse Cultura e opulencia next fall during an exhibition of the library’s recent acquisitions.) “We don’t want people to come and use the book, really,” Fiering says. “Our mission is to hold these things in perpetuity.”

Fiering says the library will have to scale back acquisitions to pay off the book. It has already passed on another highly coveted volume, the first printed in Paraguay. “The price was out of line,” Fiering says. “But at least we know there’s a copy out there.”

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January / February 2003