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Book auctions

In this video we look at book auctions.
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This is the gavel which Henry Quin, a famous Irish book collector, was awarded in 1790, to mark the fact that he had paid the highest price for any book at the huge Crevenna auction in Amsterdam that year. As the inscription on the gavel says, Quin had bought many books at this auction, but pride of place was given to his purchase of a 1470 editio princeps, a first edition of the works of Virgil. Quin’s copy of Virgil’s works was printed at Venice by Vindelino de Spira, Wendelin of Speyer, a German printer active there since 1468. The Virgil’s combination of parchment and illumination would have made it a costly item in 1470.
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In 1790, Quin paid the princely sum of 200 pounds sterling for it, almost 30,000 pounds today. Henry Quin (1760 to 1805), represents the quintessential early modern connoisseur collector. He had plenty of money to fund his purchases, enough free time to travel to auctions and centres of the book trade, such as Amsterdam, an inquisitive nature. And finally, knowledge of and an interest in books as material objects. Similar characteristics are replicated in other connoisseur collectors of the early modern period. But not every book owner fitted into this collector model and though connoisseur collectors represented a bonanza for auctioneers, they were few and far between.
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Most auctions did not aim to cater for this elite market but instead, booksellers tried to appeal to as wide a range of buyers of possible. We see this in a range of early 18th century auction catalogues, preserved in the Edward Worth Library Dublin, which offer us vital information, not only on when, where, and what people bought, but also how auctions operated. As you can see, the basic rule of an auction hasn’t changed much– he that bids most is still the buyer. Different booksellers organise their stock in different ways. Some, such as this example from a Dublin auction of 1729, offered only basic information– the author’s name, a short title, the place and date of publication.
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This type of catalogue was often grouped by size, making it difficult for buyers to track down specific books. Other booksellers saw the benefits of arranging their stock by subject, a practice which greatly helped book buyers locate books. As time went on, booksellers saw the advantages of giving more information, such as indicating whether a work was printed by a famous printing press. By the 18th century, some very elaborate catalogues were being printed, as this example of the 1727 auction of the library of Hendrik Hadrian van der Marck demonstrates. Booksellers targeting the connoisseur collector market now included far more information about the book as an object. We can see here, a whole section devoted to the editions of the Aldine Press.
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But while personal collections of collectors such as these formed an important source of stock for auctions, booksellers also produced a second type of auction– that of imported books. This latter type of auction usually offered a greater variety of books than that available from an individual collector. Arguably, auctions of imported books tell us much more about the state of the book trade because they tell us what booksellers thought might sell well.

Here are two very different kinds of auction catalogue.

  • The first dates from relatively early in the history of English auction catalogues: it is the library of a physician, Dr Francis Bernard (d. 1698).
  • The second relates to the huge sale of the Fagel collection, which was bought by Trinity College Dublin in 1802.

  • Try and find Govert Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis (Amsterdam, 1685) in both. Today, Bernard’s catalogue is searchable as a google book and this will give you a clue as to which section to search in the Fagel catalogue.
  • Comment on how the books are arranged in both catalogues.
Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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