Discoveries: First Editions and Rare Signed Books

Discoveries: First Editions and Rare Signed Books

D ecember's successful Books and Manuscripts: 19th and 20th Century sale included various lots consigned to Sotheby's by clients using the Online Pricing Platform. Here we take a closer look at some of the rare signed copies and high quality first editions that garnered the attention of collectors.

A first edition of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London achieved a huge price thanks to its signed dedication. Inscribed copies of Orwell’s first book are exceptionally rare, with only two others sold at auction in recent decades. The seller inherited the book from his grandmother, Mabel Fierz to whom the book is dedicated.

Eric Blair, who published under the pen name of George Orwell, first met Mabel Fierz in 1930 when she was on holiday in Southwold, Blair’s family home. The meeting was to prove transformative for the young writer. With the support of her husband, she became his key supporter and patron. She invited him to stay at her home in north London, helped him to find a teaching job in 1932, smuggled him a copy of Ulysses from Antwerp, and helped him obtain his flat in Parliament Hill in 1935. The two also had an affair that lasted about a year.

Above all, however, Fierz played a crucial role in ensuring that Down and Out found a publisher. Having resigned from his post in the Imperial Police in Burma, Blair had an idea for a book based on living in poverty, so was living as a tramp in England and spending time as a penniless bohemian writer in Paris. He abandoned the manuscript at Fierz's house after it had been rejected by both Jonathan Cape and Faber & Faber, telling her to throw it away (but keep the paperclips), or do with it what she liked. Fierz took the manuscript to the literary agent Leonard Moore and, by sheer force of her considerable will, persuaded him to take it on. Moore saw that the manuscript was likely to fit the ambitious and radical list of Victor Gollancz. Down and Out in Paris and London, with the author's newly minted name of "George Orwell", was published by Gollancz on 9 January 1933.

Meanwhile a first edition of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again also achieved an enormous price thanks to the signed presentation by the author. This is one of a handful of presentation copies signed by the author to recipients whose names appeared on a list written by Tolkien on The Hobbit's page proofs with instructions to the publisher that they receive a free copy. Had this particular edition retained the original dust jacket, it would have been even more valuable.

It is signed to the Livesleys, who ran a guest house called Aurora at what is now Kennaway House in Sidmouth, Devon. J.R.R. Tolkien and his family used the property as a summer holiday home, and a part of The Lord of the Rings was written during his stays there. The seller believes her grandfather purchased the book but doesn’t have exact knowledge how it entered her family and had no idea of its value. She recalls how she noticed the signature in the nineties but pre-internet, she had no success in researching it. The book was banished to the loft for twenty years with other assorted family books before it was then unpacked to decorate a bookcase.

The necessity of a new carpet a few years later then meant all the books had to be moved, at which point she saw the signature again and decided to ask Sotheby’s for advice. The consignor admitted that the book could easily have ended up in a local charity shop or church book sale and she was amazed by what proved to be a conservative estimate, let alone the eventual hammer price.

This 1997 first edition hardback of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is one of five hundred printed. It can be verified as a first print by the number “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1" on the publisher’s imprint page and the error "1 wand" repeated on p. 53. The high price shows the remarkable popularity of J.K. Rowling’s creation and the condition of this example is very good.

Unbelievably, the seller purchased this at a car boot sale for £1. An ex-military man with a hobby of going to boot fairs, he remembers that it was towards the end of the last fair of the season and a miserable rainy day. The handful of stall holders were all house clearance dealers and one of them was struggling to load a van, so our client gave him a hand carrying boxes. In one of them, he spotted the Harry Potter, along with a few random objects like staplers. He had no idea of the importance of the book and is not a book dealer, In fact, he only started to realise its potential value when he began researching Harry Potter editions. He was delighted when Sotheby's book department confirmed the importance and amazed by the eventual hammer price.

Several other lots in the sale also came via the online pricing platform and sold well. Two Einstein books comprising the 1920 first English language edition of Relativity, the Special and the General Theory, and the 1924 third edition of Theory of Relativity demonstrated the current interest in Science books and in particular Einstein and his life. They had been purchased in 2018 for £250 in a second hand shop, so it shows a clever buyer can make substantial profits with some specialist knowledge.

A 1970 Brothers Grimm fairly tales with etched and aquatint illustrations by David Hockney is numbered 88 of an edition of 100 The translation into English is by Heiner Bastian, who met Hockney in Berlin in 1968, and the seller of this lot was a German client also based in Berlin. The print run comprised four editions each of 100 copies, which had a different set of six loose etchings in a separate folder. A miniature edition was subsequently produced by Oxford University Press.

Finally, a 1952 early edition of the enduringly popular children’s book, Charlotte’s Webb by E.B. White, saw its selling price helped by the relatively good condition, the original dust jacket and a signed inscription by the author.


Mark Stephen is Deputy Director in the London valuations department, responsible for online valuations with 35 years’ experience in the auction world. The variety and breadth of antique and often, not so-antique, objects and paintings sent to Sotheby’s via our online platform is an experience to see. We sift through watches, jewellery, wine, paintings from every period, silver, ceramics and objects so bizarre they cannot be categorised. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the antiques world passes through our hands on a daily basis.

For more information and to have your objects valued click here.

Books & Manuscripts

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top