Patricia Milne-Henderson's collection of books on Coins, medals and antiquities is currently on sale in Sotheby's first online auction in the UK. Here, she shares her favourite moments from a life and career in collecting these rare and fascinating objects. 


“We simply tell the State Department that you are necessary to the National Security,” said the President of Smith, an American Ivy League Women’s college. I sat in stunned silence. “It will take them,” said he, “six months to find out that you are not Korean and another six months that you are not a nuclear scientist. If they do manage to do things faster than that we write again to them saying, ‘It will jeopardise the academic standing of this college if Miss Milne-Henderson cannot stay until the end of the school year’”. Three years earlier, as a Fulbright Scholar, I had signed papers to enter the United States: the oath was that, after a maximum of three years, I would return to my country of origin and not attempt to enter the U.S.A. for a period of two years. And here was I, at the end of my third year, being asked to stay for a fourth to run their Museum while they searched for a permanent Director. It is a brilliant small museum with unfinished paintings by Degas and Courbet, a beautiful drawings collection, prints by Piranesi, paintings by Mondrian and Kurt Schwitters, collages by Braque and Picasso – one could run on and on. But my plan was to return to Cambridge, England, to a Research Fellowship at Newnham. My Cambridge friend, Michael Jaffé, had just spent a year as Professor of Art History standing in for Fred Hart at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri and I was supposed to return with him. When he came to visit I told him my problem, expecting an agonised, “no, no, you must return with me.” No such luck. He sat in a rocking chair and said, “You’ll never be offered such a good job again. You must take it.”


That was how I came to fulfil one of the most exciting but exhausting jobs in my life, and how I came to concentrate on collecting books illustrated with classical coins. The date was 1961.

Three years had given me time to buy antiquarian books locally. Among them were two with images of classical coins: Les Illustres Observations antiques du Seigneur Gabriel Symeon Florentin. En son dernier voyage d’Italie l’an 1557 (Lyon, Jean de Tournes, 1558); and Giulio Cesare Capaccio, Delle Imprese (Naples, 1592). Opening these books to show images of the same coins in the exhibition offered the fascination of comparing the printed image with reality. So I experimented, putting mirror glass at the bottom of a box display case, a rabbit around the outer shell and plain glass above. Thus both obverse and reverse could be seen when a coin was placed on the glass and the same image in a book laid on a mirror glass could be compared alongside. Leonard Baskin was so excited by this invention that he produced nine volumes from his own collection, all with images of Greek and Roman coins. We now had the makings of an educational exhibition. My two original volumes are in this present collection. The Smithsonian sent photographers to record this new method of display which filled four enormous cases.


In 1955 my Cambridge friend, Michael Jaffé, had discovered in the Chatsworth archive a sketch book he believed to be by the young Van Dyck. In 1957, the year of my graduation and when I was back in England and had gone to work as a trainee in the Fitzwilliam Museum, he asked me to help on his edition of the work. At Chatsworth I sat in a kitchen passage collating the book while Michael was delighted by Tom Wragg, the Keeper, with a survey of the great drawing collection. I had to wait for publication, nine years later, for recognition. “My chief assistance from the summer of 1957 has come from Miss Patricia Milne-Henderson…She has made the physical descriptions of the two transcripts of the Rubens Pocketbook, as well as of the Antwerp sketchbook itself, and in the latter she was the first to descry the painter’s monogram.” When I returned to Cambridge in September 1962 more work had to be done on the Van Dyck sketchbook. I set about finding prints from which he had copied, and reading architectural treaties from the sixteenth century to find who it was that Van Dyck had studied.


By the time Van Dyck’s Antwerp Sketch Book was published Michael and I had been married long enough to have one small child, Daniel, and to have started on another, Deborah, who was born in December 1966, and Michael agreed that all the money I earned could go into book buying. We had a house in Kensington for 8 years until Michael was appointed Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and we all moved to Cambridge to live in Grove Lodge above the Museum offices. During our 17 years there we had two more children, Dorothea and Benjamin, I set up a printing press, and I went on buying books.

There still seemed little interest in antiquarian books on coins or medals. Tim Munby tipped me off about things he had spotted and I often bought them with a bottle of grateful whisky to Tim. Later Alexander Fletcher of Saltoun came my way bringing, among other things, books on classical coins. It was not until the 1990s that prices rose so steeply that I hardly ever found an affordable book – but by that time I was earning nothing. Also, Michael was rather ill. The very last book I bought was after he died. From a house local to our country home, Newton Surmaville, came Plutarch, Lives of the noble Grecians & Romans, translated out of French into English by Sir Thomas North, Knight (Cambridge, Hayes and Sawbridge, 1676). It is not even a first edition. But it cost me £800. It is not in this present collection. The binding is that of the Rev. John Phelipps whose name is stamped firmly on the front board: “I. PHELIPPS.Y”. I felt that the volume should stay in the neighbourhood with congenial company. The Phelipps family were ancient rivals of the Horseys who once owned, as their principal residence, the house in which we now live, Clifton Maybank. Plutarch was the last book to enter my collection: an expensive poor follower.

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