Auctions have historically played a central role in the world of incunabula collecting, acting as an important mechanism for re-distributing books to new homes. One of the items featured in the most recent batch added to the project website (a ca. 1475 copy of Conradus de Mure’s Fabularius) was sold at one of the most memorable auctions of the 19th century – the dispersal of Richard Heber’s vast library in the 1830s.
Heber was a true 19th-century ‘bibliomaniac’ with, according to his friend and fellow book-addict Thomas Frognall Dibdin, ‘an ungovernable passion’ for collecting. At his death in 1833 his library was estimated to comprise somewhere in the region of 150,000 books spread over several sites: two houses in London, a house in Shropshire, a London bookseller’s store (for new acquisitions) and numerous different European cities (including fifteen or sixteen rooms of a large Parisian hotel!) Not only were his books multitudinous, they were chaotically disordered and frequently without any marks of ownership. Dibdin remarked on visiting one of his properties,
When it became clear that the library had to be sold to clear Heber’s debts, the estate faced a difficult task. His heritor, half-sister Mary Cholmondeley, initially charged Dibdin with preparing the library for sale. Dibdin is not only responsible for coining the name “Bibliotheca Heberiana” but is also responsible for stamping many of the more valuable items (of which our Conradus de Mure is one) with the famous “Bibliotheca Heberiana” ink stamp to discourage theft.
“I had never seen rooms, cupboards, passages, and corridors, so choked, so suffocated with books. Treble rows were here, double rows were there. … Up to the very ceiling, the piles of volumes extended; while the floor was strewed with them, in loose and numerous heaps.”
Dibdin set on a plan to maximise profits by creating a detailed catalogue arranged by subject. However, after extensive preparatory work, he seems to have fallen out with Cholmondeley and the catalogue was abandoned. In his account of the sale Arnold Hunt (on whom I have relied heavily for my details of the auction) suggests that the falling out may have been down to Cholmondeley being unable to wait on Dibdin’s detailed catalogue due to the pressing need to settle Heber’s debts. In any event, the first portion was auctioned in April 1834 and the majority of the remaining books were auctioned in twelve further sales over the following years.
It’s safe to say that the auction was unsurpassed in scale; however it can’t be described a financial success. The majority of the books sold at a fraction of their true value. Arguably this can be attributed to the book market being in recession at the time. But the decision not to produce a detailed catalogue must also be factored in. The lack of information on the quality of the items (bearing in mind that Heber often owned multiple copies of the same item, some of poor quality) led to bidders sitting on their hands awaiting ‘better’ copies.
The first few portions of the sale were a particular fiasco with the lots failing to achieve anything like their market value. Our Conradus de Mure, which sold in the first portion, is a good example. It was a very collectable and valuable book, identified and stamped in advance by Dibdin who described it as ‘of great rarity’. Heber had paid the princely sum of 4 Guineas for the work when he purchased it; yet, when it sold at the Heber auction, it realised just 19 Shillings! William Euing eventually purchased it for his library from the bookseller John Mozley Stark for nearly twice that sum and the detailed bibliographical note he added to the front pastedown hints at the high regard he felt for it.
In truth, the sale was just too large for the market – a risk collector and novelist William Beckford had identified beforehand in a letter to a friend when he commented of the library, “should it be doomed to dispersion, inevitably [it] must stop up the very pores of collectors and occasion such a surfeit as will be remembered for a century”. Heavily indebted book dealers carrying large book-stocks were eventually forced to bid for most of the items (Thomas Thorpe alone purchased nearly a third of the library) just to prop up the market and ensure that rare book prices didn’t drop too low and erode the value of their stock!
Details of the latest ten books to be added to the project website are:
- Johannes de Janduno: Quaestiones super libros De anima Aristotelis Venice: Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen, 18 June 1480.
- Josephus, Flavius: De antiquitate Judaica. De bello Judaico Verona: Petrus Maufer de Maliferis, 25 Dec. 1480.
- Terentius Afer, Publius: Comoediae Strassburg: Johann (Reinhard) Grüninger, 1 Nov. 1496.
- Leo I, Pont. Max.: Sermones [Italian] Florence: [Antonio di Bartolommeo Miscomini], 21 May 1485.
- Mamoris, Petrus: Flagellum maleficorum [Lyons: Nicolaus Philippi? ca. 1488]
- Abiosus, Johannes Baptista: Dialogus in astrologiae defensionem cum vaticinio a diluvio ad annos 1702 Venice: Franciscus Lapicida, 20 Oct. 1494.
- Biblia [Italian]. Translated by Niccolò Malermi. Venice: Vindelinus de Spira, 1 Aug. 1471.
- Biblia latina [Basel: Johann Amerbach], 1479.
- Petrus Comestor: Historia scholastica Strassburg: [Georg Husner], 15 July 1500
- Conradus de Mure: Fabularius, seu Repertorium vocabulorum Basel: Berthold Ruppel, [ca. 1475]
Tags: Bibliomania, Bibliotheca Heberiana, Book auctions, book prices, Conradus de Mure, Fabularius, Glasgow Incunabula Project, incunabula, rare books, Richard Heber, Special Collections, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, UofGLibrary, William Euing