2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
50 Top Auction Sales of 2007

No matter how you look at it, 2007 was a big year in book auctions. The total value of the Fine Books 50—$60.1 million—is up for the fourth year in a row, and the lowest-priced lot exceeded $400,000 for the first time. Previous lists have been dominated by a few major collections, like the seemingly endless riches of the Macclesfield castle library, the Forbes collection of American autographs, the Wardington atlas collection, and the personal library of bookseller Pierre Berès. This Fine Books 50 is much more diverse, although the Macclesfield collection continues to amaze (lots 6, 44, 46, and the two tied at no. 47); multiple selections from Thomas Streeter’s library (nos. 11, 13, 14, 24, and 38) and the French collector Pierre Leroy (nos. 12, 33, 39, and 45) also made the list.

But the real news is the growing prices for books outside of the Anglo-American mainstream. Two Chinese books printed before Gutenberg’s birth finished tied at nos. 28. Two manuscript Korans (nos. 4 and 5) crossed the $1 million mark, and five important Judaica books made the top fifty (nos. 23, 25, 27, 34, and 42). In the last year, several auction houses announced they will be holding regular sales of Russian books, and London bookseller Bernard Shapero recently opened a Russian department. It is not surprising, then, that two Russian books found their way onto the list (nos. 20 and 32).

The top spots, however, belong to Anglo Saxon culture. At number one is a defining document of Western civilization, the Magna Carta. Second place, a manuscript by Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, is a defining symbol of pop culture. The rest of the list has everything in between.—PSB


$21.3 million

Magna Carta

Manuscript copy from 1297 a.d.

Sold by Sotheby’s (New York), December 18

Estimate: $20 to $30 million

The biggest auction of the year was not so much a sale as an exchange of ownership between two billionaire benefactors. First issued in 1215 during the reign of King John, the “Great Charter” is regarded as the cornerstone of modern ideas of freedom, democracy, and individual rights. Its content may not be familiar, and it is certainly not as widely read as the Bill of Rights or the Gettysburg Address, but at its heart is the key notion that no one is above the law. The charter saw several revisions in the first century after its initial promulgation, and the copy up for sale in December, which dated from the reign of Edward I, was the first version enshrined in the written law of England.

The Ross Perot Foundation acquired this copy, the only original still in private hands, for $1.5 million in 1984 from the Brudenell family of Deene Park, descendants of that earl of Cardigan who led the heroic but senseless Charge of the Light Brigade. In December, the Carlyle Group’s David Rubinstein, who faced little opposition at auction, bought it with the intention of placing it back in the National Archives, where the Perot Foundation displayed it for many years. Rubinstein said, “I am only the temporary custodian. This is a gift to the American people. It is important to me that it stay in the United States.”—IM


$3.98 million
(£1.95 million)

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

By J. K. Rowling

Handwritten manuscript from 2006

Sold by Sotheby’s (London), December 13

Estimate: $60,000 to $100,000 (£30,000–£50,000)

Rowling made seven copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, writing out and illustrating the stories in Italian handmade-paper notebooks and then having them bound in morocco with silver and moonstone embellishments. Six were given to those most intimately involved with the Harry Potter phenomenon, but this one was sold to benefit Children’s Voice, a charity Rowling cofounded in 2005. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the wizard Albus Dumbledore leaves a copy of this book to Hermione Granger in his will. The manuscript attracted plenty of presale publicity, but Sotheby’s specialists were left temporarily speechless at the result. Six serious bidders competed, and Amazon.com, bidding through London art dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, won.

Joyce, Hemingway, and Kerouac have now taken a backseat. A few thousand words “translated from the original runes” have become the most expensive literary manuscript ever sold at auction.—IM


$3.5 million
(£1.7 million)

Vita Christi

Vellum manuscript illuminated in Northern England, ca. 1190–1200, and East Anglia, ca. 1480–1490

Sold by Sotheby’s (London), December 4

Estimate: $3.1 to $4.1 million (£1.5–£2.0 million)

A pictorial Vita Christi, or life of Christ, with fifty-one glorious miniatures, or hand-painted illustrations, from the last years of the twelfth century formed the core of what many consider the finest English illuminated manuscript still in private hands. These early miniatures, perhaps made in York for a Psalter of regal opulence, were reorganized and supplemented in the late fifteenth century with fifty-seven large miniatures, almost certainly of East Anglian origin, to produce a bespoke devotional work for a Norfolk family. Formerly in the great Dyson Perrins collection, and sold in the same rooms in 1959, it was bought this time by a leading German specialist in the field, Jörn Günther, who commented, “Such manuscripts appear on the market only very, very scarcely [and] I am quite proud of having been able to purchase it. In fact, I have been hunting for the manuscript for about twenty years...If we are very fortunate, the Vita Christi will find a good new home in an American institution.”—IM


$2.3 million
(£1.1 million)

Manuscript Koran

Mesopotamia, 1203 a.d.

Sold by Christie’s (London), October 23

Estimate: $500,000 to $700,000 (£250,000–£350,000)

For many years, the heavy buying of Sheikh Saud al-Thani, the chairman of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, buoyed the market for Islamic artifacts. He bought extensively at auction on behalf of museums in his country. All told, he spent close to a billion dollars to acquire objects in many fields, including Islamic art and Western illustrated books. (He set a world record for a printed book when he paid $8.8 million for Audubon’s Birds of America.) His buying screeched to a halt in 2005 when he was arrested for embezzlement. With the sheikh gone, the Islamic art market dipped for a couple of years until oil neared $100 per barrel, and then prices came roaring back. This Koran, written in gold and silver in the early thirteenth century, set the world auction record for an Islamic manuscript.—PSB


$1.9 million

Manuscript Koran

North Africa, early 10th century

Sold by Christie’s (London), October 23

Estimate: $825,000 to $1,250,000 (£400,000–£600,000)

This early tenth-century Koran is written on vellum in bold, dark ink and encased in a fifteenth-century binding with Koranic verses stamped on the edges. Like the Koran at no. 4 on the Fine Books 50, this book came from New York City’s Hispanic Society of America. Archer Milton Huntington, the society’s founder, donated the manuscripts in 1956. They were sold in 2007 to fund future acquisitions. Huntington was the cousin of Henry Huntington, the founder of California’s Huntington Library.—PSB


$1.3 million

An Atlas of England and Wales

By Christopher Saxton

London: Christopher Saxton, ca. 1590

Sold by Sotheby’s (London), March 15

Estimate: $1 million to $1.35 million (£500,000–£700,000)

Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Lord Burghley, may have commissioned Saxton to produce this first atlas mapping individual English counties. Burghley’s proof copies of the maps (now in the British Museum) mark the location of potentially troublesome Catholic estates, and the detailed representations of the English coastline would have been useful in those Spanish Armada days. This record-setting copy of Saxton’s atlas was one of two from the castle library of the earls of Macclesfield. The second copy made £78,000 ($153,000), which was slightly less than the previous record for the book.

The extraordinary price achieved for this copy can be traced not to the standard thirty-five double-page maps in full period color, but to the inclusion of five maps by Giovanni Battista Boazio that relate to Sir Francis Drake’s royally sanctioned expedition against Spanish possessions in the West Indies and the Americas in 1585 and 1586. Only ten other sets of these maps depicting towns visited—or rather raided and sacked—by Drake, including St. Augustine (the first printed plan of any city now within the United States), are recorded; nine are already in institutional collections.—IM


$1.08 million

The North American Indian

By Edward S. Curtis

Cambridge & Norwood, Mass., 1907–1926

Sold by Swann Auction Galleries (New York),

October 15

Estimate: $800,000 to $1,200,000

As iconic fine-art photographs escalate in value, Daile Kaplan, the director of photographs at New York’s Swann Galleries, explained, “competition for beautifully produced books with photographic images has intensified.” That may be an understatement considering that an incomplete set (thirty-two of forty volumes) of Edward S. Curtis’s iconic The North American Indian sold in October for $1,080,000 to an anonymous collector. The sale was the highest-priced lot ever sold at Swann. In 2005, a complete set deaccessioned from the Texas Memorial Museum made $1.4 million at Christie’s. The sixteen portfolios and sixteen text volumes sold at Swann Galleries came from the Sheldon Library of Concord, New Hampshire, which received the books as a gift in the late 1920s.—JS



Alcoholics Anonymous Manuscript

By Bill Wilson


Sold by Sotheby’s (New York), June 21

Estimate: $900,000 to $1,200,000

In 2004, the working manuscript for Alcoholics Anonymous, widely seen as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, sold for $1.6 million at auction (good for second place on the Fine Books 50 that year). Three years later, the manuscript popped back up at Sotheby’s. William H. Schaberg, an AA expert who helped Sotheby’s catalog the manuscript, said he expected it to go for “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.” Enter Ken and Krista Roberts, avid AA collectors from Alabama. Willing to pay up to $2.4 million, they sent their daughter Amelia Sorensen, age 28, to Sotheby’s as their proxy. An auction novice, she sat alone in the back of the saleroom and held her cell phone open so her parents could hear the proceedings. Sorensen recalls being shocked when the auctioneer started calling out numbers and nobody bid. As the price dropped, she feared it would fall below the reserve and be pulled from the sale. She raised her paddle at $850,000. Her father recalled the event: “I heard ‘850 in the back’ and knew it was her. Something came over me, and I knew we got it. I went numb I was so thrilled.” The Roberts have no idea why there were no other bidders that day and surmise that the seller regrets “not having sat on the document another ten years.” Schaberg agrees that the Roberts got “a pretty good deal” and chalked it up to “the unpredictability of auctions.”—EFB




By Pierre de Beauvais (translator)

Northeastern France, ca. 1280–1290

Sold by Sotheby’s (London), December 4

Estimate: $600,000 to
$1 million (£300,000–£500,000)

Hugely popular in medieval times, bestiaries describe the world’s animals and birds, even mythical ones that were believed at the time to be real. The texts explain the best ways to trap and hunt animals and the reasons God created them (such as for food or as beasts of burden), and they credit the animals with divinely given characteristics.

This manuscript French bestiary is delightfully illustrated with seventy-two miniatures. One page shows a harpist playing to a swan in the hope that it will join in and give voice to the famous swan song. Another depicts the onager, a long-eared ass said to bray twelve times in March to mark the spring equinox.

Only two other French bestiaries have sold at action in the past century. Both are now in the Getty, which last summer acquired the Northumberland Bestiary (for a rumored but denied $20 million), which eighteen years ago set a record, at $5.8 million, for the sale of an English manuscript. London dealer Sam Fogg, who bought this French bestiary, said, “No one will ever get another one. Bestiaries are famous but incredibly rare. Now that the Getty has the Northumberland manuscript, that is it!”—IM



De architectura

By Marcus Vitruvius Pollio

Rome: Eucharius Silber, ca. 1487

Sold by Christie’s (New York), December 3

Estimate: $200,000 to $300,000

The great Italian Renaissance architects, including Michelangelo, were influenced by Vitruvius, who wrote the only architectural treatise to survive from antiquity. This copy of the first printing—bound with Frontinus’s De aquis urbis Romae, a contemporary work on aqueducts—and many other editions of Vitruvius sold at the same auction came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum received them in a bequest made in 1941 by W. Gedney Beatty, a gentleman architect and collector whose standing orders to the leading European dealers of his age always began with those editions of Vitruvius missing from his shelves. The anonymous buyer, who set a record price, was competing for the first copy to have come to auction in more than twenty-five years.—IM

The Fine Books 50 ranks the top prices paid at auction for books, maps, and manuscripts. Prices, which include the buyer’s premium, are ranked in dollars. Results in parentheses show the price in the original currency of the auction. The dollar equivalent is calculated using the exchange rate on the day of the sale.
Read about the other 40 top auction sales in the March/April issue of Fine Books & Collections magazine. Subscribe today!