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An Exclusive Club of Many Chapters

September 18, 1988|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

In the clubby world of book collecting, the Zamorano 80 has a cult following.

Compiled in 1945 by the Los Angeles-based Zamorano Club, a group of bibliophiles, it's a list of 80 works that are supposed to represent the most distinguished writings on early California history.

Only two complete, first-edition collections of the Zamorano 80 are known to exist. One, for the better part of two decades, has reposed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the gift of the late financier Frederick W. Beinecke.

The other collection was painstakingly put together, volume by volume, over a period of 35 years by retired Pasadena investment counselor Henry H. Clifford, who finally reached his goal this year.

Clifford, 78, is a compulsive collector of everything from gold coins to examples of fine printing and printing presses. "I probably should have been a museum curator," he said in a recent interview at his Pasadena home.

Both the book club, founded in 1928, and the list was named after Agustin Juan Vicente Zamorano, who in the early 19th Century was California's first printer.

Many of the writings are known only to collectors and scholars. But others, such as Mark Twain's "Roughing It" and Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp," have been widely read. Some of the volumes are easily found and can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Others are exceptionally rare and, if for sale at all, are worth thousands of dollars.

Besides the two complete collections known to exist, only the Huntington Library of San Marino, which has 79 of the 80 Zamorano writings, and the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, which has more than 70 items in the collection, come close to having the entire list.

Aside from its literary merit, the collection also is interesting because of its diverse binding and printing techniques. For example, Clifford showed a visitor a three-volume set on early California history, published in 1757, that had a sheepskin binding.

Clifford estimated that the complete Zamorano 80 was worth "the better part" of $1 million. The current president of the Zamorano Club, Dr. Rinard Z. Hart of Claremont, estimated its value at $750,000.

In any case, the aging volumes are too valuable to gather dust on Clifford's bookshelves. Instead, he stores the collection in a Los Angeles bank vault.

As for the future of his Zamorano collection, Clifford declared that he would rather see it fall into the hands of another book collector than a library.

"The Huntington has been hounding me for my collection, but I won't give it to them," said Clifford, a member of the library's Society of Fellows, which helps support the institution. "If things go to a library, they're buried with rare exception."

"I expect to put (the collection) on display next year in San Francisco, New York or Santa Barbara," Clifford said. Moreover, he added, "anyone who wants to see it can contact me."

If Clifford or his estate ever does allow the Zamorano 80 to be auctioned, there's sure to be a scramble for it. "These are landmark books in the history and literature of California," said Glen Dawson, co-owner of Dawson's Book Shop in Hancock Park and a specialist in western history.

Actually, the number 80 is misleading because some of the categories contain more than one volume. Others are hardly more than pamphlets. Included is an account of the tragedy of the Donner party (1879) as well as Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Silverado Squatters" (1883), essays on the author's travels through California.

The most valuable book in the collection, agree scholars and collectors, is "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit," by John Rollin Ridge, son of a distinguished Cherokee Indian chief. A 90-page work published in 1854, only three or, possibly, four first-edition copies are believed to exist.

Clifford said he purchased the Ridge book about 10 or 15 years ago from a private party in Maine. It's the one work that prevents the Huntington Library from having a third complete Zamorano 80.

Clearly, said George Miles, Yale's curator for its Western Americana Collection, once Clifford closed the deal for the Ridge book, "it was a matter of time" before he completed the collection. To have the entire list, added Miles, "is a great collecting coup."

Clifford completed the coup last February when, for $42,000, he purchased the final two items at auction from the Estelle Doheny book collection. One, an 1831 work by Mexican government official Carlos Antonio Carrillo, was on strengthening the defenses of California; the other, written in 1770, was by explorer Miguel Costanso on the first land expedition into California, which resulted in the establishment of missions.

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