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