The knock-out section of the Books and Works on Paper sale at Chiswick Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on August 24 was a 70-lot group of early boxing books.
Londoners with no great connection with the sport, Brian and Debbie Watkins nonetheless chose to collect in this rarefied area for more than 50 years.
Dispersals of this calibre do not happen often. Chiswick said the last notable auction on the subject was the Nat Fleisher collection at US saleroom Swann Galleries in 1997.
Among the most coveted boxing books are the Georgian manuals written by well-known British bare-knuckle fighters at the end of the 18th century.
Boxing Reviewed; or, the Science of Manual Defence, displayed on Rational Principles was penned c.1790 by the Birmingham pugilist Thomas Fewtrell. Dubbed ‘the gentleman jaw breaker’, he had over 100 fights in his career.
In this book, possibly the first written by an active pugilist, he studies the techniques of several leading Georgian boxers. The frontispiece depicts a scene titled Thomas Johnson the first Pugilist in the World, who was the English champ between 1784-91.
It carried an estimate of £1200-1800 and took £3400.
Fewtrell was a friend and sparring partner of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), a fellow prize fighter who was also a highly regarded instructor. He held frequent public exhibitions and published several books on boxing technique.
The copy of The Modern Art of Boxing offered at Chiswick was a previously unrecorded variant state from 1790. In later paper-covered boards, it was guided at £1000-1500 and sold at £1100.
Also by Mendoza was a rare autobiography from 1808, one that appears never to have been offered for sale at auction before.
Memoirs of the Life of Daniel Mendoza; Containing a Faithful Narrative of the Various Vicissitudes of His Life, and an Account of the Numerous Contests…, made £8500 against an estimate of £4000-6000.
The work numbers 320 pages with the title page outlining it was Printed for D. Mendoza, Ship Tavern, Commercial Road, by G. Hayden, Brydges Street, Covent Garden, 1808 – eight years before a better-known edition of this work. The text is thought to have been written c.1806 when Mendoza spent time in a debtors’ prison.
Mendoza’s book was printed in a second edition by G Hayden in 1816. More of these are known in institutional collections. A copy here in the original publisher’s boards with the price of two shillings to the spine sold for £1900.
Also taking £1900 was a contemporary account of the contest fought on December 11, 1821, between Bill Neat (aka the Bristol Bull) and Tom ‘The Gas Man’ Hickman. A crowd of 22,000 gathered on Hungerford Common to witness 18 bloody rounds before Neat reduced his opponent ‘to senselessness’. Pierce Egan’s 22-page report titled An Account of the Great Fight for the Championship of all England suggests that the fighters shared a purse of 400 guineas.
‘First world championship’
Tom Sayers (1826-65) was the heavyweight champion of England between 1857-60. His lasting fame followed his final contest against American champion John Heenan. The fight is considered boxing’s first world championship.
An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral in Camden Town, London, after which an auction was held of his personal effects.
A catalogue for the sale on December 1, 1865, included Sayers’ “silver cups, vases, belts, valuable jewellery, paintings, and furniture, the well-known English mastiff Lion and the performing mule, Barney”.
The auctioneer commented that the proceeds from the sale of catalogues at one shilling each “will be presented to the late Tom Sayers’ aged father.”
This copy, with each lot annotated with the sold price and each page with the running total, took £2500 (estimate £1000-1500).
Eyes on the prize
American prize fighting came of age in a sequence of major fights in the decade before the civil war.
The first of these, held on February 7, 1849, matched the two most prominent fighters in America for a purse of $10,000.
Irish-American Yankee Sullivan and native-born Tom Hyer were both affiliated with New York street gangs and political factions.
Sold here at £4000 was The American Fistiana, a volume published just prior to the contest as a publicity vehicle. Taking its name from the British annual Fistiana that ran between 1841-68, it is of most interest for its ‘Chronological List of the Principal Prize Fights in the United States’ – a list that includes one fight held in the 1810s, five in the 1820s, and some 15 in the 1830s.
The hoopla surrounding the Sullivan-Hyer fight had much to do with the anti-immigrant sentiment that pervaded American society in the antebellum years.
The era was depicted in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York that memorably starred Daniel Day-Lewis as William Poole. A bar owner and one of the Manhattan leaders of the Know-Nothing Party and the Bowery Boys gang, ‘Bill the Butcher’ often battled multiple outfits of the infamous Five Points.
In the original paper wrappers, a rare account of his life, published in 1855 around the time he was shot dead on Broadway, sold at £3000.
Chiswick specialist Rhydian Williams said “the collection was 100% sold and drew plenty of American buyers”.
However, British dealer Pierre Spake, who is gathering material to update and publish a new book on the history of boxing was the buyer of 12 lots.
His purchases included a fourth edition of The Catechism of Boxing published by George Smeeton in 1822 that features a detailed engraved of ‘Mr [John] Jackson’s’ clenched fist (£1300) and a large manuscript boxing bibliography written in the 1920s-50 by Neville Watson sold with numerous tipped-in letters from prominent boxing figures (£4500).
See ATG No 2517 for another Spake purchase, at Bonhams.
'Fight of the Century'
Other elements from the Watkins collection of ‘boxiana’ had been offered by Chiswick Auctions on May 24.
Leading that smaller tranche at £3800 was an album of photographic postcards issued following the ‘Fight of the Century’ between Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion, and the previously undefeated ‘Great White Hope’ James Jeffries.
The July 4, 1910, fight, won by Johnson, sparked both celebrations and riots in which more than 20 people died.