As a popular collecting genre, the history of science marches on, helped by wealthy entrants with a background in computing and technology.
A key figure of the past, Charles Darwin was among the great and the good of days gone by featured in the Bonhams Knightsbridge (28/27/21/14.5% buyer’s premium) Fine Books and Manuscripts sale.
The June 21 auction also included Ernest Chain’s Nobel Prize for Penicillin (sold for £280,000) and an autographed letter signed by Sir Isaac Newton (£150,000 – see ATG No 2601), but leading the books was a first edition copy of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Better know simply as On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s work published by John Murray in 1859 sold for £145,000 to a phone bidder against an estimated £80,000- 120,000.
It is described by Bern Dibner in Heralds of Science as Represented by Two Hundred Epochal Books and Pamphlets in the Dibner Library (1955) as “the most important single work in science”.
Of the 1250 copies printed, after deducting presentation and review copies (and five for Stationer’s Hall copyright), 1170 were made available for sale.
Bonhams’ copy (from a private Swedish collection) wasn’t perfect, a little bumped, but ‘bright’ and ‘generally fresh and tight’, in a ‘nice’ original binding with blind-stamped green cloth.
Bidders are prepared to overlook many shortcomings when it comes to this work. In June 2018 two 1859 firsts of On the Origin of Species, neither in what could be called good condition, made strong prices (see ATG No 2350).
One sold at Bonhams for a £84,000 hammer price featured a title-page bearing an 1859 ownership inscription of Charles Gatty, a Fellow of both the Linnaean and the Royal Geographical Societies whose interests included both zoology and geology.
The other example, with far more condition problems, managed to double the high estimate to sell for
£42,000 at Thomson Roddick in Carlisle.
In June 2019 a presentation copy of On the Origin of Species made a record $400,000 (£316,353) at Bonhams New York, while a month later another sold for £180,000 as part of the Braune collection of scientific books offered by Christie’s.
‘In memory of Charleston’
Collectable economic books are relatively scarce.
A first edition copy of JM Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) proved no exception. More importantly, this was a remarkable association copy – with a valuable backstory – presented by Keynes to Bloomsbury Group luminary Vanessa Bell, and inscribed: ‘…in memory of Charleston where he wrote the book’.
Dismayed at early drafts for the Treaty of Paris, Keynes resigned from his Treasury post in May 1916, subsequently writing Economic Consequences – an instant bestseller – in the late summer of that year, much of it from a loaned bedroom at Charleston, Bell’s farmhouse on the Sussex Downs. Ultimately Bloomsbury won the day, and the book fetched £40,000 against a conservative estimate of £8000-10,000.
Another lot exceeding expectations was Ezra Pound’s Personae (1909), the poet’s own copy, which realised £12,000 against an estimate of £2000-3000.
Inscribed ‘Ezra Pound His Book’ on the front paste-down, with the poem, Marvoil, marked up in pencil for reading aloud, this particular copy was as much of institutional as private appeal. The lot included a first-edition copy of Exultations, Pound’s fourth book of poetry, with further markups to Sestina, with words and syllables underlined for emphasis and further annotations to the margins.
Homage to Catalonia, published in April 1938, is George Orwell’s account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the Republican cause. Secker & Warburg published 1500 copies to little commercial success, with the remaining 700 copies only sold after Orwell’s death in 1950, following the success of the better-known Animal Farm (£3500) and 1984.
Rare in the dust jacket, the Bonhams’ first edition came price-clipped, with ‘small’ repairs and tears to the dust jacket and realised £5500.
Another key book for collectors of modern first editions (inspired by childhood nostalgia and the charm of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations) is CS Lewis’ much-loved The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in the Narnia series published by Geoffrey Bles in 1950 and rechristened The Narnia Chronicles by the children’s author and antiquarian, Roger Lancelyn Green, the following year.
Although not especially rare, Bonhams’ copy of the first edition came with an unclipped dust jacket with ‘folds neatly repaired’ and ‘small losses to spine ends’ and fetched £6500 (estimate £3000-5000) – an auction record for an unsigned or unassociated copy.
The same book, with the bookplate of Lucia Anne Cawthron, had previously sold at Christie’s in November 2010 for £5250 (including buyer’s premium).
More than met the eye was a first edition (but third impression) of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, with the author’s famous love heart design on the dust jacket.
Following the success of Live and Let Die, Fleming wrote to Cape asking the publisher to print another thousand copies, making this third impression of May 1954 the smallest of the three print runs, confirmed by the book production ledger in the Cape archive. Of appeal to shrewd Bond enthusiasts on a tighter budget, the book sold for £4500.
In comparison, a first edition, first impression of Casino Royale (with dust jacket) sold for £21,000 at Bonhams last March.
The prices for vintage paperbacks are on the rise. Offered by Bonhams for the first time, a ‘fine and complete’ set of the 14 Pan paperbacks of the James Bond novels (all first printings), including the elusive Canadian version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, sold for £1500 – a significant legitimisation by a major international auction house of a market previously established online.
Perhaps less well known is the associated market in literary collectables, as likely to appeal to a book aficionado as to a more general collector and difficult to value with any precision.
EM Forster’s Victorian mahogany writing table – from Forster’s family home at West Hackhurst, Surrey – came with the provenance confirmed by a note from May Buckingham, wife of Forster’s lover, the policeman Bob Buckingham: “I used it as a dressing table in the bedroom he used when staying with us. He often used to write at it…”
The table fetched £3500, knocked down to the same private buyer of Forster’s Arts & Crafts reclining armchair, sold last year by Bonhams for £14,000.
In this market, provenance is everything. TE Lawrence’s north African jambiya or dagger (comparable to the jambiya now in the collection of the National Army Museum, following grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund) is one of the few Lawrentian daggers sold with traceable provenance.
Lawrence gave the dagger to his friend, Isaac ‘Ike’ Webb, the chief mechanic and works manager at the Brough Motorcycle Works in Nottingham, subsequently mentioned in Webb’s will as “the knife presented to me by Lawrence’”and sold at a Nottingham auction in 1995.
Lawrence’s image – in kaffiyeh and robes – is vital to his mystique. The jambiya secured £28,000.
The auction overall was described by Simon Roberts, Bonhams’ head of sale, book and manuscripts department, as a “top estimate sale”. It totalled £992,301, with 81% of the 191 lots sold and an impressive 99.08% sold by value.