Sotheby’s High Priced Book Auctions

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The London auction house Sotheby’s often attracts attention for the high priced sale of artwork. But bibliophiles know Sotheby’s was originally an auction house only for books. Founded in 1744 by the London bookseller Samuel Baker, Sotheby’s first auction was the sale of the library of the Irish book collector Sir John Stanley. It was not until 1937 that Sotheby’s began to auction paintings and other collectibles. Over the years, Sotheby’s has auctioned off many rare and unique documents. Here are the most amazing of Sotheby’s high priced book auctions and why they fetched such extravagant prices.

For collectors, documents and books that reflect their original history in some way are the ones that excite and draw attention. For this reason, first editions are prized because they are seen to be closer to the author’s original intentions. Even more highly prized than first editions are pre-print manuscripts or sketches of famous works. In 1928, Sotheby’s sold the original illustrated manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground gifted by Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell (now in the British Library). The manuscript sold for a record £15,400 ($400,000 in 2014 dollars), a price which made headlines then.

Often, the content of a unique document is not as important as its historical importance. In 2010, Sotheby’s auctioned the original “Founding Rules of Basketball” written by legendary sports coach and basketball inventor James Naismith in 1892. It was only a two-page document with 13 typed rules. (Dribbling the basketball had not yet been invented.) It sold in New York for $4.3 million. It was the highest price paid for any sports memorabilia ever. In December of 2011, the original Apple Partnership Agreement signed by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ron Wayne on April 1, 1976 was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $1.5 million. The contents of these documents were mundane when they were produced, but took on exceptional historical importance later.

Rare early books often fetch high-priced bids, but those of historical importance and rarity get the most attention at Sotheby’s book auctions. Recently on July 15, a copy of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1473-4), translated and printed by the famous English printer William Caxton, sold at Sotheby’s London for $1.85 million. The book was the first ever printed in the English language, and the first one printed by Caxton. It was dedicated to Margaret of York, sister to King Edward IV. Only 18 copies of the book are known to exist, and only two of those are complete. The copy that was sold lacked several pages which were supplied by facsimile. Nevertheless, the book exceeded its pre-auction premium by $500,000. Owning the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye is an English book collector’s dream come true.

Often, when there is a determined buyer involved, auction premiums will be exceeded by significant amounts. In November of 2013 the exceptionally rare Bay Psalm Book sold in New York for $14.1 million. The Bay Psalm Book (1640), a collection of metrical English translations of the psalms, was the first book printed in the American colonies just 20 years after the pilgrims had landed. Only 11 copies are known to exist, and only five of those are complete. It was purchased by the American philanthropist David Rubenstein who lent it out for public exhibit.

David Rubenstein also set the record for the highest amount ever paid for a written document. In 2007, the financier bought a late 13th century copy of the grandfather of constitutional law, the Magna Carta, for $21.32 million. The copy that he bought is the oldest in private hands, but it is not the original master document, which is now lost. Rubenstein’s document, which is now in the National Archives in Washington D.C., is a copy of the Magna Carta issued by King Edward I in 1297, 82 years after the original document. The 1297 version is important because it contains the articles of the original Magna Carta which are still in Statute, such as clause 29 which outlines the right of due process.

Some books are prized because they are works of art and human achievement in their own right. In 2010, Sotheby’s sold the four volumes of the first edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America (1827-38) for $12.5 million. The volumes contain 435 hand-colored illustrations of birds drawn by Audobon over a 14 year period. They are considered by many to be the finest examples of 19th century intaglio printmaking in existence.

Rare and unique documents have always fetched high-priced bids at Sotheby’s book auctions. But, due to their extreme rarity, such books only come up for sale infrequently.

By Steve Killings

US News & World Report

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