Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2010 Issue

Spectacular Auction to Include World's Most Valuable Printed Book


Audubon's illustrations are both art and science. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

By Michael Stillman

One of the more spectacular book auctions in recent memory will take place at Sotheby's in London on December 7, 2010. It isn't a large collection, nor is it a subject-focused one. There will be just 50 lots, coming from various fields. What makes the auction spectacular is the quality of the material offered. Included among the lots are the most expensive printed book ever offered at auction and the greatest book in the history of English literature. Each is presented in superb copies. And, there is more.

Offered is material from the collection of Frederick, 2nd Lord (Baron) Hesketh. Lord Hesketh participated in what Sotheby's calls "high spot collecting." Rather than focusing on a particular field, he collected the very best material available. It would probably be impossible to collect such impressive high spots today (unless you buy this entire collection), but Hesketh purchased his books in an era when such material was still possible to find. Born in 1916, his collecting ended in 1955 when the English Baron died at the age of 39.

Lord Hesketh had come by his fortune the old-fashioned way - he inherited it. If he engaged in activities beyond those of good deeds and similar actions expected of a man of wealth it is not obvious. Hesketh had come from a long line of baronets, dating to the 18th century. However, this only partly accounts for his wealth. Despite his very British pedigree, much of his fortune was American in origin. He was the great-grandson of John Breckenridge, Vice-President under James Buchanan, Southern Democratic candidate for President in 1860, and a General and Secretary of War for the Confederacy. The serious American money, though, came more from his grandfather William Tevis, a wealthy industrialist with interests in mining, railroads, telegraphs lines, and a controlling share of Wells Fargo. One of his daughters went off to England and married the first Lord Hesketh.

While the second Lord Hesketh, original owner of this collection, died in 1955, his wife, Lady Christian Hesketh, survived him by over half a century. This explains why it has taken so long for the collection from the estate of a man who died in 1955 to come to auction. Lady Hesketh died in 2006, and later that year, their son, Alexander, third Lord Hesketh, deposited the collection with Lancaster University for safekeeping. The third lord appears to have differing interests from his father, having invested over the years in automobile racing, among other things, rather than books. He single-handedly financed a Formula One racing team in the 1970s, eschewing the corporate sponsorships his competitors used to fund their ventures. Some of his activities have been less than profitable, though undoubtedly his most costly enterprise has been keeping up the family's enormous estate. In 2005, he auctioned off artwork from his house for $15 million, and the following year put up part of his land and manor house for sale for $28 million. This sale likely is another step in converting assets to cash. While reality has forced many of old wealth to sell off some of their assets, it appears that the slightly eccentric and likeable Alexander Hesketh has lost none of the good humor he displayed in putting together his unconventional racing team. He seems unlikely to mourn giving up the collection all that much.

The pièce de résistance of this magnificent collection is a first edition, double elephant folio copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America. This masterpiece, perhaps the greatest illustrated work ever, was produced by naturalist-ornithologist Audubon during the 1830s. The unusually large, colored illustrations are works of art, though Audubon was primarily concerned with acquainting his readers with these species. While this is one of the greatest works ever printed, it was not a financial success for its creator. It was so costly to produce, and therefore expensive to buy, that he was unable to sell enough copies to make a profit. Audubon responded by producing his smaller, more affordable octavo edition of the Birds of America, which became a success financially. This book holds the record highest price for a printed work, a copy being sold at Christie's in 2000 for $8,802,500. Sotheby's describes the Hesketh copy as being in "excellent condition." The original subscriber was early English paleobiologist Henry Witham. It is copy number 11. Sotheby's has put an estimate on it of £4,000,000 - £6,000,000 (US $6,250,000 - $9,400,000). We believe the seller will not be disappointed with the price this item brings. If you hope to buy one of these elephant folios, we suggest you place your bid now as it may be a long time before another reaches the market.

Posted On: 2013-12-07 16:42
User Name: eckhardebay

This book is NOT(!) "The world's most valuable book" ever printed.

Without any doubt, it is the First edition of the "Mainzer Psalter" Anno 1457, printed by Schöffer and Fust.

A complete copy (if found) would fetch 100 Millionen US-Dollar and more!

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 7. Ritter's unusual sun-dial world map, 1607. Est. $3500 to $4500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 16. Fascinating Japanese satirical map published prior to WWII, 1932. Est. $1400 to $2000
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 30. Newton's 2" miniature terrestrial globe, 1833. Est. $3500 to $4500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 318. Braun & Hogenberg's first plan of Moscow in contemporary color, 1575. Est. $2750 to $3500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 346. One of the most decorative 18th century maps of Malta, 1680. Est. $1200 to $1500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 412. The first printed map devoted to the Pacific in full contemporary color, 1589. Est. $8000 to $10000
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 425. Rare set of celebrated explorers of the New World, 1592. Est. $1900 to $2300
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 436. Two superb miniature atlases bound in one volume with 98 maps, 1682. Est. $5500 to $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 445. Part IV of de Bry's "Grand Voyages" by Girolamo Benzoni, 1613. Est. $2000 to $2500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 447. Tallis' "History of the United States of America" in six volumes, 1850. Est. $1500 to $1800
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 448. Mallet's miniature military masterpiece, 1672. Est. $1400 to $1700
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Malcolm X, Autograph Letter Signed, from prison, 1950. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Letter from Moses Walker, an enslaved Georgia man, to his mother at another plantation, 1854. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Signed cabinet card of Frederick Douglass, albumen photograph, Boston, circa 1879. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Placard from the Memphis Sanitation Worker's strike, 1968. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b><br><i>The North Star,</i> volume 1, issue 27, Rochester, NY, 1848. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Hand-tinted tintype of John Brown, circa 1860. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster signed & inscribed by Huey Newton, circa 1967. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Album of aerial views of the march on Montgomery, taken by federal troops, 1965. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster for the SNCC, photograph by Danny Lyon featuring John Lewis, circa 1962. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Jenner (Rev. George Charles). <i>The Evidence at Large...Respecting Dr Jenner's Discovery of Vaccine Inoculation,</i> presentation copy from Edward Jenner to Rev. Rowland Hill, 1805. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Houdini (Harry).- Maggi (Girolamo). <i>De tintinnabulis liber postumus...de equuleo liber,</i> Harry Houdini's copy, Amsterdam, H. Wetstein, 1689. £600 to £800
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Meyer (Henry Leonard). Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, and their Eggs , 7 vol. in 2 plus Illustrations of British Birds, 4 vol., 1842-50 and [1835-51]. £5,000 to £7,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Dickens (Charles). <i>An Entirely New Romantic Drama, in Three Acts, by Mr. Wilkie Collins, called The Frozen Deep,</i> 1857. £3,000 to £4,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Lighthouses and Islands of Ireland, c. 125 drawings, 1867. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Shelley (Lady Jane). Diary, 1853 & 1860. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Scottish Binding.- The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, bound in contemporary brown polished calf decorated with the figure of a Chinese spearman, by ?James Scott of Edinburgh, 1778. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Greene (Graham). <i>The Man Within,</i> first edition, signed by the author, 1929. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Mellan (Claude, 1598-1688). The Holy Face, or the Veil of St Veronica, [c. 1649 and later]. £800 to £1,200
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    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Desaguliers (John Theophilus). <i>A Dissertation concerning Electricity,</i> W. Innys, and T. Longman, 1742. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Le Jeune (Paul). <i>Relation de se qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France en l'anné 1636 enuoyée au R.Pere Provincial de la Compagnie de Iesus en la Province de France,</i> 1637. £2,000 to £3,000
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