Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2003 Issue

117 Years in the Dismantling:<br>The End of Perhaps the Greatest Collection Ever

117years

Three boxes of Thomas Phillips' documents, just as he left them.


By Michael Stillman

One of the longest running collection dispersals ever finally came to a close last month at Sotheby’s as that venerable auction house auctioned off the last remnants of the Sir Thomas Phillipps collection. The Phillipps auctions started 117 years ago, in 1886, and officially closed in 1981 after a mere 95 years. However, a few of Phillipps’ unusual boxes remained intact after the final auction, and these were brought back to the auction block last month essentially the way Phillipps left them – a mess.

Phillipps was, to say the least, an eccentric collector of the nineteenth century. He collected anything and everything that had to do with books and manuscripts, particularly in the English language. In the process, he put together one of the greatest collections ever, consisting of around 100,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts. No wonder it took so long to dispose of it.

His story is the nightmare of every collector’s wife. It’s the story of boxes of books piling up to the ceiling, expanding from room to room, and gradually overtaking practically every inch of space in the house. His obsession drove Phillipps and his family deeply into debt and nearly bankrupted them, but it never slowed him down.

While there was a method to Sir Thomas’ madness, it must have seemed like he collected indiscriminately. He acquired everything from rare 11th century gospels to reams of seemingly useless scraps of paper, stuffed away in large coffin-shaped boxes. These unique boxes were employed so that they could be quickly removed in the event of fire. Essentially, Sir Thomas wanted to preserve everything, which is why he seemed such an indiscriminate collector. Late in his life he even wrote that his aim was to have a copy of every book in the world. When you want everything, there isn’t much that’s going to be left out.

At one time, Phillipps’ home was filled with these odd boxes crammed full of books. As the library was dispersed, material was unpacked and the boxes discarded. However, three of these boxes, dating back at least to 1854, remained intact. The reason was simply that what was inside was too much a mess to unpack. Rather than complete books or manuscripts, they contained thousands of fragments, pieces, and scraps of documents, letters, wills, summonses, and more, all covered in dust. And so while these boxes have passed through two hands since the final sale in 1981, they returned to Sotheby’s essentially the same as when they left. No one had as yet wanted to tackle the job of sorting them out.

To fully appreciate this strange lot, we need to turn to Sotheby’s cataloguers. They prepared one of the most entertaining lot descriptions you will ever see, and we have no choice but to quote from it at length.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b> The Library of Pierre Bergé<br>Auction Pierre Bergé & Associés<br>in association with Sotheby’s<br>Paris-Hôtel Drout<br>December 14, 2018<br><br>New York Exhibition<br>Oct. 16 to Oct. 20</b>
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> BARTHOLOMEUS ANGLICUS. <i>Le Proprietaire des choses.</i> Lyon, [circa 1484]. 150 000 / 200 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> MONTAIGNE, Michel de. <i>Essais.</i> Bordeaux, 1580. 400 000 / 500 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> PROUST, Marcel. <i>Du côté de chez Swann.</i> Paris, 1914 [1913]. 600 000 / 800 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> MONSTRELET, Enguerrand de. <i>Le Premier [-Tiers] Volume des Cronicques.</i> Paris, circa 1503.<br>300 000 / 400 000 €
  • <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>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Jean de Mandeville, <i>Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte Land,</i> Strassburg, 1488. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Titus Livius, <i>Las Quatorze Decadas,</i> Zaragoza, 1520. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Printed <i>Book of Hours</i> with 20 full-page illustrations, Paris, 1509. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Jean La Fontaine, <i>Fables Choisies, mises en Vers,</i> first editions, Paris, 1668. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Giovanni Boccaccio, <i>De las mujeres illustres en romance,</i> Zaragoza, 1494. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Giovanni Boccaccio, third edition of the first published work of female biography, Louvain, 1487. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> José González Cabrera Bueno, <i>Navegación Especulativa, y Práctica,</i> Manila, 1734. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Andreas Vesalius, <i>Icones Anatomicae,</i> Munich, Bremer Press, 1934. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Joseph Boneta y Laplana, <i>Gritos del Purgatorio, y Medios para acallarlos,</i> Manila, 1711. $4,000 to $6,000.

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