Several records were broken in The Golden Age of Russian Literature, a European collection sold in London on July 9, and that nation’s most revered literary son, Alexander Pushkin, topped the lists.
Almost a third of the 121 lots at Christie’s (25/20/13.5% buyer’s premium) featured Alexander Pushkin’s work and he got off to a good start when a near pristine copy of Issue No 76 of Vestnik Evropy (The Herald of Europe) sold at £38,000.
Published at the Moscow University Press in 1814 and uncut in the original wrappers, this issue marked the then 15-year-old student’s first appearance in print, but the most expensive Pushkin lot was a first edition of his masterpiece, Evgenii Onegin.
It was first published serially in eight parts over the course of seven years, but while this set was largely contained in later bound form, it included one of only two recorded examples of the 1825 first part in original wrappers* ever seen at auction.
The lot was hammered down at £380,000, more than double the high estimate.
First published Pushkin
Sold for a record £115,000 was an 1820 first of the poem Ruslan i Liudmila, Pushkin’s first published book.
It was one he had begun work on while still studying at the Tsarkoe Selo Lyceum but he did not actually see it in its printed form for a least a year after it was issued in St Petersburg. Pushkin was at the time in southern Russia, where he had been exiled after writing scandalous epigrams about the imperial family.
The love poem Bakhchisaraiskii fontan (The Fountain of Bakhchisarai) is a work that Pushkin later dismissed as one he valued only for the 3000 roubles fee it brought him, but is nowadays described as the first Russian bestseller in verse.
An 1824 first made £40,000, but bid to £65,000 was a very rare 1827 edition that is especially admired for its illustrations by Stepan Galaktionov.
Yet another notable Pushkin success was a volume presenting an anonymously published work of 1824, Tsygany (Gypsies), and an 1830, third edition of The Fountain…
The earlier work is a noted rarity and this was a copy in a contemporary calf gilt binding from the library of the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, a daughter of Tsar Nicholas I, sister to Alexander II and a renowned art collector. The lot sold at £75,000.
Two songs from The Fountain… also feature in a complete 1824-25 first edition set in original wrappers and boards of Mnemozina, an almanac celebrating Russian literature edited by the musician and philologist Vladimir Odievsky and AK Kjukhel’beker. Something with no other documented auction presence, this too sold at £75,000.
Ivan Andreevich Krylov is regarded as Russia’s Aesop or La Fontaine, and an 1809 first of his Basni (Fables) – another great rarity – brought a record bid of £58,000.
In a contemporary Russian binding, a copy of Gogol’s first masterpiece, an 1831-32, two-volume first of the collection of comic tales of provincial life known in English as Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka sold at £140,000, matching the record set for the copy in R Eden Martin’s great Russian library (see footnote below).
Published in 1840 under the initials AF, while he was still a student at Moscow University, Lincheshij panteon (The Lyrical Pantheon), the first book of verse produced by Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet, was yet another work with no recorded auction appearances.
Illustrated with wood-engraved vignettes and in a later cloth binding, but preserving the original upper printed wrapper, it had some defects of condition but sold well at £80,000.
Uncut in the original wrappers an 1873, three-volume first of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Besy, better known in English as The Devils, or The Possessed, sold at a record £55,000.
* A copy offered among Russian literary firsts and manuscripts from the collection of Chicago lawyer, R Eden Martin in a Christie’s sale of November 2018 made £55,000. See report in ATG No 2372.