See also : Incunabula 16th century books 17th century books Fine books 1700-1850 Inventions Religious texts Judaica Ancient England Literature Literature in English Poems and lyrics Sciences Sciences from 1800 Travel
Chronology : 1430-1459 1460-1479 1530-1539 1620-1629 1640-1649 1820-1829 1830-1839
1455 Gutenberg Bible
1987 SOLD for $ 5.4M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The work is divided into two volumes, respectively covering the Old and New Testaments in the Latin text of the Vulgate, with a total of 1,282 pages 42 x 30 cm in double folio format printed on both sides. Printing is done in black ink in two columns per page. The typography imitates handwriting. The color decoration and rubrication are not printed but a guide could be provided to the purchaser.
The original edition produced under the supervision of Gutenberg is estimated at 150 copies on paper plus 30 copies on vellum. 21 complete copies have survived, plus 13 limited to one of the two volumes and another 15 with several missing leaves.
On April 7, 1978, Christie's sold for $ 2.2M including premium a copy on paper, completed since the only missing leaf had been supplied in 1953 by a specialist bookseller. This almost perfect copy is currently kept at the Stuttgart State Library.
On October 22, 1987, Christie's sold for $ 5.4M including premium a Volume I on paper, clean and fresh in its original Mainz binding. This book is currently kept at a private university in Japan.
1477 The Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton
1998 SOLD for £ 4.6M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
He is a very important promoter of English literature, himself making numerous translations of secular texts. He understands the cultural incentive of the printing press during a visit to Cologne in 1471. He immediately transfers a printing press to Bruges. Translated from French by Caxton and printed in Flanders in 1473, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye is the very first incunabula in the English language. A copy was sold for £ 1.08M including premium by Sotheby's on July 15, 2014.
When Caxton returned to London in 1476, his new expertise was eagerly awaited. He instals a printing press in Westminster, the first of its kind in England.
His passion for English literature is heightened by this possibility of dissemination. He is a great admirer of Chaucer, which he publishes without resorting to sponsors. Chaucer's masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, becomes in 1477 the first masterpiece of English printing. This achievement is all the more meritorious as Caxton later complained of the poor literary quality of the manuscript at his disposal.
About ten copies of this original edition have survived, plus three important fragments. The only complete copy, which had belonged to King George III, is in the British Library. The illuminated copy kept in Oxford has been completed.
On 8 July 1998 at lot 2, Christie's sold for £ 4.6M including premium the only copy in private hands, which is also one of the most complete with only 4 lacking leaves.
1493 The Columbus Letter
2023 SOLD for $ 3.9M by Christie's
Having become Cristobal Colon, he seeks protectors in Portugal and Spain without giving up his extravagant demands. In 1492 the treasurer of the house of Castile cleverly observes that the expected gain is much greater than the investment and Queen Isabella accepts the project.
The successful trip and return of two of the three ships of Columbus's fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, from August 3, 1492 to March 4, 1493, was an unprecedented feat in which the officers had to calm the sailors, panic-stricken after losing sight of the land. Six inhabited lands had been discovered and Columbus correctly recognized that all of them were islands.
Columbus writes a letter which is not at all an account of the many adventures of the trip but a resolutely appealing report intended to encourage the financing of a second and even more ambitious expedition. The natives from then named Indians are shy and easy to satisfy although it is recommended to be wary against some cannibals. There will be no obstacle to the exploitation of gold and spices.
Prepared in Spanish by Columbus himself, the original letter was addressed to Gabriel Sanchez, Treasurer General of the kingdom of Aragon. It was published in Barcelona as a two leaf folio in March or April 1493, possibly without the authorization of the author. The only surviving copy is held by the New York Public Library.
Translated into Latin, it was published in Rome around May of the same year. A quarto 4 leaves 20 x 14 cm of that Epistola resided for nearly a century in a private library. It was sold for $ 3.9M from a lower estimate of $ 1M by Christie's on October 19, 2023, lot 308.
The first illustrated edition, not located and undated, is identified as the first Basel edition because it anticipates the more ambitious edition realized in that city with the same woodcuts in 1494.
The Basel editions confirm the political purpose of the letter. Four naive images illustrate the life on the islands and sketch their map beside a glorious portrait of King Ferdinand and the coat of arms of Spain, reinforcing the information of Columbus's allegiance to the Reyes Catolicos against the claims of recuperation by Portugal.
Bound in the 19th century after another text to the glory of King Ferdinand, a highly rare complete copy of the second edition of Basel was sold for $ 750K by Bonhams on September 26, 2017, lot 2.
Nearly ten years later Amerigo Vespucci will finally have the intuition that the islands and coasts discovered on the other side of the Atlantic were not the Indies but a New World.
1520-1539 The Princeps Edition of the Talmud
2015 SOLD for $ 9.3M including premium
The invention of printing was not immediately applied to Hebrew types. In Italy, some Christian illuminators were able to continue their business during the last decades of the fifteenth century by adapting their expertise to the copy of Hebrew books.
The first books printed in Hebrew also appeared in Italy. A Mishneh Torah printed in Bologna in 1482 was sold for € 2.8 million including premium by Christie's on April 30, 2014. The texts are cleverly arranged in blocks for an easy comparison within the page between the basic text and its commentaries. There is nothing similar in the Christian culture as far as I know.
Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer in Venice, obtained in 1515 the permission to print in Hebrew. His princeps editions of the Talmud are a major project carried out in three phases : the Babylonian Talmud from 1520 to 1523, the Talmud of Jerusalem in 1522 and 1523 and additional tractates from 1525 to 1539 that went to complete his Babylonian Talmud.
The result is an achievement. The composition continues the tradition of confrontational blocks with such skill that they will serve for centuries as a prototype for further printed editions of the Talmud. The rabbinical sources are carefully selected and considered as indisputable. The book is printed on a beautiful heavy paper.
Westminster Abbey once owned the finest surviving copy of the Babylonian Talmud of Bomberg, complete of its 3472 leaves of great freshness, in nine volumes 39 x 27 cm in a period binding. When he was assembling his Valmadonna Trust Library, the collector Jack Lunzer managed to acquire this set by providing in exchange a valuable old charter of the abbey.
The Bomberg Talmud of the Valmadonna Trust Library is estimated $ 5M for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 22, lot 12.
The Valmadonna collection was exhibited at Sotheby's in February 2009. The video below, which is an introduction to the 11000 pieces displayed in this exhibition, demonstrates convincingly why the Bomberg Talmud is the most important jewel in this stunning library.
1623 SHAKESPEARE's First Folio
2020 SOLD for $ 10M by Christie's
This man of the stage died in 1616 without having paid attention to the literary value of his own works. Half of his plays were unpublished. The others had been issued as poor quality booklets of which we can be assume that they were not verified by the author.
John Heminges and Henry Condell, who owned overall half of the shares of the Globe Theatre, judiciously decided to reconstruct with the best possible accuracy the whole of Shakespeare's dramatic work. They knew 36 plays of which 18 had never been published. They will have to buy back the publishing rights to some of them and to retrieve the partial manuscripts that had been entrusted to the actors to perform their own role.
The print is of the top luxury, in relation to the literary magnificence of the work. What would later be called the First Folio is a superb volume of 454 leaves 32 x 21 cm, printed in 1623 by Jaggard and Blount. It is forever used as the top reference for any Shakespearean scholarship.
The production run of the First Folio is estimated at around 750 copies. About 220 survive today. 56 are complete, of which only 5 are in private hands. All but six are from the third issue when the content was frozen and the error of a redundant page has been corrected.
Shakespeare is the greatest success in English literature and editions are multiplying. Garrick puts Shakespeare still higher in fashion and Edmond Malone devotes his life to the study of his work. Malone proposes in 1778 a chronology of the plays, observes the literary greatness of the First Folio and has a new edition published in 1790.
On October 14, 2020, Christie's sold a complete copy of the First Folio for $ 10M from a lower estimate of $ 4M, lot 12. In 1809 its owner had submitted it to Malone's appreciation just before having it bound. The expert's autograph letter is joined to the volume. Malone found it to be a fine, genuine copy of the First Folio. A few small repairs will be carried out according to his recommendations. This copy has retained the cleanliness observed by Malone more than 200 years ago.
Only five complete copies of the 'First Folio' remain in private hands, and on 24 April in #NewYork, Christie’s will offer the first complete copy to come on the market in almost two decades during our #ExceptionalSale. https://t.co/orNUeX30H0 pic.twitter.com/k90SszIXD0— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) February 25, 2020
2001 SOLD for $ 6.2M by Christie's
1640 Psalms for a New World
2013 SOLD 14.2 M$ including premium
The singing of the psalms is a strong element of their liturgy, linking together the first parishioners of that region still in wilderness. Their scholars do not want to use the available British translations. Their new version in English verse takes the excuse of a need to be closer to the original Hebrew text. It was actually a remarkable collective work, and the first sign of their independence from the Church of England.
They now have to publish this text. In London, Josse Glover supports the project and in turn leaves to America in 1638. He did not reach it, but he was accompanied by Stephen Day (or Daye), a locksmith who will be the first printer in New England.
Currently known by the nickname Bay Psalm Book, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre is printed by Day in 1640 in Cambridge and sold by the earliest bookseller of New England, Hezekiah Usher.
The original edition consisted of 1700 copies. For a century, the book was highly successful and often reprinted. Because of its liturgical use, most copies were damaged and destroyed.
The arrival at auction of a copy in good condition of the 1640 edition is an event of the utmost importance for American bibliophiles and patriots. In 1947, one of them went to be more expensive than the Old Testament of the Gutenberg Bible.
Another one is estimated $ 15M to 30M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on November 26. Here is the link to the home page of the sale. The seller is the Old South Church in Boston which keeps another copy in a similar condition.
POST SALE COMMENT
The Bay Psalm Book was sold for $ 14.2M including premium.
I invite you to play the video shared by Sotheby's :
1827-1838 Audubon by Subscription
2010 SOLD 7.3 M£ including premium
Let's start with the birds. We already know them in the Prints group. Here is (slightly modified) how I summarized the importance of this work:
Lovers of top auctions remember the outstanding results obtained by Christie's in New York on the major work of Audubon, The Birds of America. The four volumes contain 435 hand colored etchings.
These prints are in double elephant folio size, the largest known format for an illustrated book: 100 x 67 cm. The gigantic size is related to the goal that John James Audubon managed for the great work of his life: he wanted all his birds being displayed in their natural habitat in life size, even for the largest. This American had to travel to England to find a publisher: he was Robert Havell, in London. The publication spanned twelve years (1827-1838). Such a duration was not unusual at this time for ambitious books.
The highest price achieved at Christie's, $ 8.8 million including premium, was recorded on March 10, 2000 on a copy constituted by subscription, whose colors remained remarkably fresh.
The copy for sale by Sotheby's, estimated £ 4M, has similar qualities. It was collected by the eleventh subscriber in Audubon's ledger, a paleobotanist from Edinburgh who was convinced of the value of the project during a wine party with the author.
POST SALE COMMENT
Great success for this outstanding book: £ 7.3 million including premium.
1827-1838 The Grocer of Louisville
2019 SOLD for $ 6.6M including premium
He is early trained in taxidermy and participates in one of the earliest attempts of bird ringing. His method is unprecedented. He kills his specimen with a shotgun and straightens it in a natural pose with a wire. Then he draws it life size, often with its female or its prey. He never draws from a stuffed bird.
Audubon goes bankrupt in 1819. Against the advice of his friends but with the support of his wife, he decides to publish his work. American learned societies repel this man from the woods who had ridiculed one of their honorable fellows. In 1826, right in the romantic period, he arrives in England with his collection of watercolors.
The work to be done is colossal. He wants to maintain the 97 x 66 cm format of his drawing sheets but no book has ever been printed in such a big size. The plates should be colored one by one by hand. The only solution is the subscription. He finds in Edinburgh in 1827 a printer, Lizars, to carry out the work. A first booklet of 10 plates, numbered from I to X, is prepared.
There will be no second issue by Lizars, following a strike of the colorists. The business is now entrusted to Havell in London, until the 435th and final plate in 1838. The five volumes of texts are published separately in octavo format between 1831 and 1839.
On December 18 in New York, Sotheby's sells a complete set, in very good condition despite the obscuring of some captions by the binding. It was formed for the subscription of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society received by Audubon in April 1827. Plates I, III, and V to X are in the first state printed by Lizars.
This lot was sold for £ 1.76M including premium by Sotheby's on June 21, 1990. It is now estimated $ 6M, lot 1. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
The complete copy assembled around 1838 for the Duke of Portland with some remaining stock includes all the first ten plates in the Lizars edition and is in perfect condition. It was sold for $ 9.7M including premium by Christie's on June 14, 2018. A full set in its original binding, resulting from one of the very first subscriptions, was sold for £ 7.3M including premium by Sotheby's on December 7, 2010.
1838 The Birds of the Duke of Portland
2018 SOLD for $ 9.7M including premium
It is now estimated $ 8M for sale in the same auction room on June 14 as lot 1, as a charity to benefit the conservation of the natural environment.
I narrated it as follows in 2012 :
The complete version of Audubon's The Birds of America, published in London, includes 435 plates engraved from 1827 to 1838, hand-colored from the watercolors of the author and bound in four volumes. Made in a quite large 'double elephant' folio format 98 x 65 cm, it is the masterpiece of illustrated books. All birds were carefully illustrated in life size.
The introduction at auction of a full version in good condition is an event. Two of these prestigious copies came from original deliveries by subscription. They were respectively sold for $ 8.8 million including premium at Christie's on March 10, 2000 and for £ 7.3 million including premium by Sotheby's on December 7, 2010.
At the end of the operation, Audubon's list included 161 subscribers. Its printers, Lizars and Havell, had planned it slightly wider, and it is likely that a few remaining copies have been assembled in volumes in 1838 for new customers while retaining the chronological order of publication.
The copy from the library of the Dukes of Portland is probably one of those assembled without subscription, and it remained in exceptionally fine condition. It may be considered like an original edition by the bibliophiles as most of the first plates are in first state, as evidenced by watermarks and through the variants in the legends. The five octavo volumes of texts are included in the lot.