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.
Spectacular Auction to Include World's Most Valuable Printed Book
The Hesketh First Folio. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Number 2 on the list - and when was the last time this was a second best? - is a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. Published in 1623, Sotheby's describes this copy as "virtually unmarred." Shakespeare never published his plays. It was left to his friends to publish his work or it would have been lost forever. Half of the 36 plays contained in the folio, including MacBeth and Twelfth Night, were never printed prior to this edition seven years after his death. In other words, were it not for the First Folio, they would have been lost forever. Sotheby's estimates this item at £1,000,000-1,500,000, or roughly US $1,550,000 - $2,350,000.
Another amazing set of items being offered is a collection of original drawings by Pierre-Joseph Redouté for his greatest work, Les Roses. These drawings were originally collected by Redouté's patron and pupil, the Duchesse de Berry. It is the largest collection of the painter-botanist's work to come on the market since de Berry's sale in 1837. The drawings will be sold separately. They are expected to bring around £1,500,000 (US $2,350,000) in total.
While most of the items were from Lord Hesketh's collection, there is a group of over 40 letters concerning Lady Hesketh's specialty, Scotland, and in particular, the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was the Scottish Queen, but many of England's Catholics also saw her as the legitimate Queen of England. This did not please her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, who occupied the English throne through most of the latter half of the 16th century. Mary was forced to flee Scotland after her husband's murder, supposedly with her assistance, and looked for sanctuary in England. However, Elizabeth saw her as a rival (not without cause). Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for 18 years, and after Mary's alleged participation in a plot on her life, Elizabeth had her beheaded. This collection includes letters from Elizabeth and others involved in her imprisonment. The collection is estimated to sell for £150,000- 200,000 (US $235,000 - $310,000).
Among the other items to be auctioned on December 7 is a rare work from England's first printer, William Caxton, and an illuminated manuscript from the 11th century. In all, the auction is expected to bring £8-10 million (US $12.5 - $15.5 million), though we would not be terribly surprised to see the final hammer exceed this sum.