It is one of just two retained by Smith (1723-90) for his own library. Given such an impressive provenance for this copy of what is the first and probably greatest classic of modern economic thought, any estimate was always likely to also be of a high value: in this case £500,000-800,000.
The work, more formally known as An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was printed in London, for publishers W Strahan and T Cadell, 1776-84.
It is the first major expression of the theory of free trade. Exalted equally as a compassionate conservative and sympathetic liberal, Smith propounds individual liberty and the accumulation of wealth, while arguing strongly for moral fairness and a duty to society.
A central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, together with his friend David Hume, Smith gave up his chair at the University of Glasgow in 1764 to serve as travelling tutor to the third duke of Buccleuch on the Continent.
His observations of absolute monarchy and the ensuing fiscal problems laid the ground for his economic thought, as did meetings with intellectuals such as Voltaire and D’Alembert and economists such as Mirabeau and Turgot.
After two decades of composition, Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and immediately hailed as ‘excellent’ and ‘profound’; the first edition was sold out within six months.
History of a book
Having no direct descendants, Smith bequeathed his library to his cousin David Douglas, later Lord Reston (1769-1819). On Reston’s death, the library was divided between his daughters, Mrs Bannerman of Edinburgh and Mrs Cunningham of Prestonpans. The Bannerman portion was given to New College, Edinburgh Library.
Mrs Cunningham sold part of the library in 1878, apparently through James Stillie, bookseller at Edinburgh. Of the remaining portion, about 150 volumes were donated by her son to Queen’s University, Belfast, and the final portion was sold after his death in 1918. One volume, a German translation of the Wealth of Nations, was donated by a Cunningham descendant to Glasgow University as late as the early 1960s.
This copy was subsequently owned by Homer B Vanderblue. In his bibliophilic memoir, Vanderblue recounts his chance encounter with Wealth of Nations in the 1920s in a Washington bookshop that led to his assembling the most comprehensive private collection of the works of Adam Smith, with special emphasis on the Wealth of Nations.
He was a professor at Harvard Business School and Dean of Northwestern’s School of Commerce. In 1939 he donated his Smith collection to the Baker Library at Harvard, now part of the Kress Collection of Business and Economics. Clearly acquired after his 1939 gift, the present copy from Smith’s library presumably remained with Vanderblue until the end of his life, says Christie's. By 1988 it had entered the trade and graced one private French collection before its acquisition by its current owner, a private European collector.
The other copy known to have been retained by Smith is now lost. It contained annotations by Smith, sold at auction on June 1, 1959, for £420, and was acquired by the economist Piero Srafa (1898-1983).
Also on offer at Christie’s is an autograph letter signed (‘Adam Smith’) to his publisher William Strahan, Kirkaldy, November 13, 1776. Estimate: £55,000–80,000.
The letter originally enclosed Smith’s remarkable account of the last months of his close friend David Hume. It also goes on to discuss Smith’s income from The Wealth of Nations, which had been published earlier that year: “I have received three hundred pounds of the copy money of the first edition of my book. But as I got a good number of copies, to make presents of, from Mr Cadell, I do not exactly know what balance may be due to me.
"I should, therefore, be glad he would send me the account / With regard to the next edition my present opinion [is] that it should be printed in four vol: octavo; and I would propose that it should be printed at your expense, and that we should divide the profits. Let me know if this is agreeable to you.”
Country house discovery
Derbyshire auction house Hansons unearthed a first edition copy of the Wealth of Nations as part of its Bishton Hall sale on October 11-16.
This two-volume discovery from the Staffordshire country house went on to sell for a hammer price of £65,000 to a UK phone bidder against an estimate of £30,000-50,000.
That result just edges the Bishton Hall copy into the top half-dozen prices achieved at auction, but recent years have produced some very high bids indeed on Smith’s great work and three copies have sold for six-figure sums.