F or Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Department, 2022 began with the enormously exciting acquisition of the Honresfield Library ‘for the nation,’ which saw a consortium of public libraries across the United Kingdom come together to raise £15 million to acquire a hugely important collection including rare manuscripts by the Brontë family, Jane Austen, Walter Scott and Robert Burns. The success of the ambitious project means that the remarkable treasures of the collection will remain the UK, with many of the texts returning to their birthplaces.
London’s star single-owner sale of this year was the Library of Henry Rogers Broughton, 2nd Baron Fairhaven. Part I took place in May (totalling £4,461,050) and Part II in November (totalling £2,774,280), thus achieving a grand total of £7,235,330, shattering the high estimate by over a million.
A very different single owner sale was The Stolper-Wilson Sex Pistols Collection which also proved an immense success with collectors, garnering considerable press coverage and engaging a significant number of buyers that were new to Sotheby’s. The sale totalled £354,567, double the high estimate, with a 94% sell through rate.
Meanwhile, the James Bond on Bond Street auction was the first of its kind: a cross-category sale to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dr. No. It featured books, posters, wine, cars and photography and made just under £100,000 over its high estimate, generating significant press and a number of record prices with a sell through rate of 96 percent.
And in Europe, the Milan auction of antiquarian books and manuscripts was well received, achieving £100,000 over the low estimate and underscoring the department’s successful sales strategy across Europe.
In New York, the year’s most unique sale was the single-lot charity auction of The Unburnable Book – a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that, as its name suggests, is impervious to flame. ‘It was an honor to support PEN America in their efforts,’ says associate specialist Kalika Sands. ‘In addition to achieving a record price for the work, the auction raised awareness about the proliferation of book banning and educational gag orders in American schools nationwide. The proceeds supported PEN America’s crucial work to counter this crisis.’
Later that summer, the New York team hosted its biannual Fine Books and Manuscripts sale with remarkable results. Thirteen lots were offered during a live auction, with three selling for over $1 million – a stunning trio that included extracts from the Journal of Proceedings of the Virginia Ratification Convention – the state ratification that ensured the success of the United States Constitution and inspired the Federal Bill of Rights – and the Declaration of Independence, as well as a rare ‘First Folio’ of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.
The year closed strong in New York with a number of auctions, including Age of Wonder, which collected books and manuscripts published by the most significant figures of the modern age, from Adam Smith to Charles Darwin. ‘With On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin wrote what is now considered a new Book of Genesis. Liberated by science, man’s reach was suddenly boundless,‘ says Sands. ‘Age of Wonder, a curated sale that sought to explore the possibility inherent in this age of discovery, achieved a new record price for any Darwin manuscript sold at auction.’ An autograph manuscript beating an excerpt from On the Origin of Species sold for $882,000.
The Unburnable Book: A Fire-Proof Edition of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Sotheby’s Paris team also saw important treasures pass through their hands, across three Books & Manuscripts sales, totaling €7.6 million. A June sale dedicated to the illustrated book garnered excellent results, including for three rare Dürer editions, which sold for a total of €440,000, as well as a rare, illustrated letter by Edouard Manet (€201,000). Several books by Joan Miró, René Magritte and Pierre Alechinsky also achieved record results.
The theme of bookbinding dominated ‘Précieuses reliures du XVIe au XXe siècle de la collection d’un couple de bibliophiles,’ the November sale from the private collection of a noted bibliophile couple. The sale included rare and historic bindings, ranging from the 16th to 20th century, including an extraordinary Demosthenes, printed in Venice in 1503, in its original binding that reached €70,000. Another highlight of this collection was an illuminated book painted by Alexander Bening that attracted €113,000.
The French team ended the year with a third, outstanding sale – Précieuses bibliothèque Jorge Ortiz Linares. This collection, estimated at €1.7 million, more than doubled that sum to reach €4 million. The highest bids were for a rare letter by René Descartes to his friend Constantijn Huygens, going for €705,600, two scarce editions from Cervantes, including a Don Quixote (€504,000) and the first edition of Novelas (€403,000) and a rare Rabelais edition in its original binding (€466,000).
‘Every catalog is an opportunity for me to discover and learn about treasures waiting to be discovered.’
‘Every catalog is an opportunity for me to discover and learn about treasures that were waiting to be discovered, hidden in collections,’ says Paris specialist Benoit Puttemans. ‘This year, the illustrated letter from Manet was one of my most delightful discoveries. The letter is exceptionally sophisticated: illustrated with original watercolors, written with a brush and not with a pen, it is completely unprecedented and one of a kind. Every morning, I wonder what kind of discovery Sotheby’s will offer me!’
'Looking back over 2022, I am struck at how privileged and fortunate we have been: so many extraordinary books and manuscripts have passed through our hands in the last year,' says London specialist Gabriel Heaton. 'The beginning of the year saw us working with the UK’s Friends of the National Libraries on the sale of a once in a generation library of English Literature, the Blavatnik-Honresfield Library, which includes such treasures as poetical notebooks in the hands of Robert Burns and Emily Bronte; the year closes in Paris with a first edition Don Quixote and other exquisite early printed French and Spanish literature from the Ortiz library. The Fairhaven Library was the greatest Natural History collection we have seen in many years; the Jay Kislak sale was a monument to a truly great collector of Americana; and our various owner sales have included such highlights as a Shakespeare First Folio and Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution.'
“I am struck at how privileged and fortunate we have been: so many extraordinary books and manuscripts have passed through our hands in the last year.”
'We have been delighted in 2022 to find that offering a wide range of sales has really revealed the appetite for great books, whether this be Antiquarian Books in Milan or James Bond on Bond Street,' says Heaton. 'And of course a particular delight of this year is that we have been much freer to meet our clients and share our passion for books and manuscripts in person.
Away from the towering highlights, we all have items to which we are particularly drawn, and I must just mention two: a wonderful letter by Elizabeth I explaining her foreign policy objectives during the long war with Spain (events in France she promises, shall not make the Spanish owners of "one foote of grounde in Englande"), and the copy of The Colossus and Other Poems that Sylvia Plath presented to her husband, Ted Hughes. Has it really only been one year?'