The Greatest Book Sale of All Time?

The Greatest Book Sale of All Time?

A series of high-profile book sales, making record sums, such as Hesketh, Arcana, Macclesfield, Wentworth et al., along with a series of stratospheric prices for art at auction, can easily distract us from some comparable achievements made more than a hundred years ago.

In these heady days of record prices being set, and broken, both in the book world and the art world, it is important to put these records into perspective with comparable historical sales. Recently with such successes as the Hesketh sale, which sold at Sotheby’s in December 2010 for £14,971,950, the Christie’s Arcana collection for £2,281,225 and the Macclesfield library, which made an outstanding £20.29m - the highest total for any series of book sales at Sotheby’s London - and sales of artworks reaching the dizzying heights of $140m (£73m) for Jackson Pollock’s Number 5, 1948, [All time record sale, David Geffen, Private Sale, 2006] or $135m (£71m) for Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 [Maria Altmann, Private Sale, 2006] it is easy to forget those sales that didn’t have the exposure of today but achieved records for all times.

In 1892, Henry Sotheran Ltd. sold the Althorp Library to Mrs Rylands for £255,000 (then over 1.2 million dollars). In the same year, Raphael’s Crucifixion was sold for £11,130, Titian’sHoly Family for £2520 and Vermeer’s Lady standing at the Virginals for £2400. A few years earlier the National Gallery had acquired Botticelli’s Madonna of the pomegranate for a mere £252 and a collection of paintings from Longford Castle that included Holbein’s The Ambassadors for £35,000. In terms of present day value the £255,000 Althorp figure would translate to approximately £115 million based on average earnings, or £236 million based upon GDP. However, art acquired at that time for a comparable sum would in fact be worth billions. Considering the relative value of books to art this would make the Althorp sale not only the greatest book sale of all time, but also the greatest art sale of all time.


In July 1892, Mr Railton, manager of Sotheran’s at the Strand, purchased the Althorp Library from the Earl Spencer on behalf of Mrs Rylands, who was assembling a rare-books collection as a memorial to her late husband. This became the John Rylands Library, and is now part of the special collections at the John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester. J.H. Stonehouse, along with a team of 7, was responsible for packing and removing the books from Althorp to Manchester. Even though the exact figure is still unknown, the estimated price Mrs Rylands paid for the collection is £255,000, making it the greatest book sale of its time, and in real terms, probably of all time.

The most valuable books and beautiful bindings were located in the Old Book Room, where it was ruled that no one, under any circumstances, could be left alone. Stored here was a fine collection of Block Books, including the Apocalypse, Ars Moriendi, Speculum Humanae, Biblia Pauperum, as well as the earliest dated Block Print, St Christopher, 1423.

Some exceptional examples of early books from movable type included the Bamberg and Gutenberg Bibles and the Fust and Schoeffer Psalter of 1457, the first printed book with a date, on vellum. Among other incunables was a rare selection of classics from the Count Reviezky Collection, the Earl Spencer’s first purchase as a collector in 1790. There were also first editions of the most famous English books, including the four folios of Shakespeare (the first contained Lewis Theobald’s notes, having been bought by George Steevens, in 1754, for £3. 3s) and the very rare Shakespeare Sonnets of 1609, with a contemporary MS. price-mark showing its original price of fivepence.

However the main glory of the room and in fact the entire library was the magnificent collection of fifty-eight Caxtons; the largest number then existing in any private library in the world and with three titles, The Four Sons of Aymon, Blanchardyn and Eglantyne, and theBroadside Death Bed Prayers, being unique. Mr Railton gave only himself and Stonehouse authority to handle the Caxtons and upon packing the books, Mr Railton jumped on the cases, instructing Stonehouse to do the same so they both could boast “we (have) stood on fifty-eight Caxtons.”

Sotheran’s completed the job in three months, successfully finishing weeks ahead of schedule and winning a petty bet as a result. Over this period the bookshop handled more than 40,000 volumes and filled 600 cases, weighing over 120 tons in total.

As a result of having emptied the Althorp library, Sotheran’s was contracted to refill the shelves, albeit with books of far less value!

Even though the exact figure is still unknown, the estimated price Mrs Rylands paid for the collection is £255,000, making it the greatest book sale of its time, and in real terms, probably of all time.

Beatie Wolfe -
(Originally published in Rare Book Review, 2008)