Christies May 21st in London: in the embrace of history
- by Thomas C. McKinney
Christie’s has a long and storied history of formidable auctions, and the material they offer meets a very high standard. This month, Christie’s London’s Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books continues the trend as one hundred and twenty-one lots featuring many significant people and events are offered for sale on May 21st.
Fourteen lots of medieval and renaissance manuscripts begin the catalogue, and they won’t all break the bank. The first lot, The Adoration of the Magi, an illuminated manuscript presenting a miniature on a leaf from a Book of Hours dated c.1450, is estimated $8,300-13,000. Another lot that caught my eye is a Bible produced in 13th century England. I found myself considering the events that happened in England during the manuscript’s existence: the arrival of the Black Death in England, the separation of the Church of England from Rome, the Wars of the Rose, and Shakespeare all come to mind. As lot 06, the Bible is estimated $17,000-25,000.
One of the few lots in the sale falling under the category of Americana is also one of the most significant offered. The Codex Chimalpahin and Historical Works for Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl are three volumes related to Aztec Mexico and contain major unpublished original accounts about native life, society and politics in Prehispanic and 16th century New Spain. Two authors, both of Nahua (Aztec) descent, offer an immensely rare and comprehensive perspective from the indigenous side that is otherwise not available to private collectors. Estimated $500,000-830,000, these volumes are not for the faint of heart, or the light of wallet.
While the preceding manuscript lots may be older, many of the items under the autograph letter and manuscripts section command higher prices. A veritable who’s who of important and high profile composers and their autograph letters and manuscripts are on display. Bach? A section of the composing score of church cantata BWV 188, ‘Ich habe meine Zuversicht,’ is available as lot 15. It is estimated $250,000-330,000. Perhaps you prefer Beethoven? The following lot, #16, is an autograph letter signed to the pianist and composer, Charles Neate, and is estimated $50,000-83,000. The following lots include the likes of Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.
The big names continue to flow after the composers wrap up. Dickens, Einstein, Freud, Leibniz, and Planck are among those with autograph material available. A small section dedicated to Alan Turing and 20th century mathematics is also included. Turing was a name that I was, until recently, unfamiliar with. However, a movie about him, The Imitation Game, is due to release this year and brought him into my scope of knowledge. His autograph, which according to Christie’s has never before been offered at auction, is offered, as well as his own personal copies of two volumes on specific mathematic concepts.
Under the nineteen lot section on Russian books and manuscripts, significant publications from Russia make appearances. Six lots of material by Dostoevsky are here, including the first edition of Crime and Punishment (in Russian, of course). It is estimated $10,000-15,000 as lot 52. But the most significant item here is Apostol [Acts and Epistles], published by order of Ivan IV for the various churches built in Muscovy and Kazan under his watch. This is the first edition of the first dated book printed in Moscow from 1564. Only one other copy of the same edition is known, being held by the British Library. As lot 50, it is estimated $170,000-250,000.
Western European books are grouped together in a sizeable 35 lot portion of the sale. Many of the items are incunabula or were printed at the beginning of the 16th century. Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, the best surviving account of the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts, is estimated $15,000-20,000 as lot 70. Another highlight of the section is lot 80, Albrecht Durer’s Passio Christi [The Small Passion], a first edition of a complete set of Durer’s most extensive series that includes 36 woodcuts and is estimated $20,000-30,000. With these items and the other material offered in mind, the diamond of the section is undoubtedly lot 99—a presentation copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations from 1776. No other like copies have been seen in the rooms for over 40 years. Considering both the rarity and the significance of the content, it’s not surprising to see a six-digit estimation of $120,000-170,000.
The final lots of the sale fall more broadly under the categories of cartography, topography, and natural history. Francis Frith’s Egypt, Sinai, and Jerusalem: A Series of Twenty Photographs, c.1858-1860, is offered in its first edition and is considered one of the most important 19th century photobooks. Frith’s photographs contained within, particularly his views of the Pyramids, were groundbreaking for the period and are the works he is best known for. The large volume, measuring nearly 2 ½ feet wide and 1 ¾ feet tall, is listed as lot 108 and estimated $120,000-170,000. For collectors of maps, two copies and different editions of Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terraru. –Parergon. –Nomenclator ptolemaicus atlas are being sold under lots 114 and 115. Both are entirely colored by hand and contain over 150 maps. Neither are entirely complete—lot 114, the 1601 edition, is missing a single map, and lot 115, the 1603 Latin edition, is missing two.
All in all, Christie’s London’s Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books contains a large assortment of significant material covering a wide range of subjects and time. For serious collectors of European and Russian material, your attention is practically mandatory.
Here is a link to the sale.