Saturday 23 August 2014

Catalogues of English Book Sales, 1676–1900

One of the most useful tools for provenance research on medieval manuscripts has been made available for online consultation and download:
List of Catalogues of English Book Sales, 1676–1900, Now in the British Museum (London, 1915)

As recorded in the Preface, dated March 1915,
"the list was begun in the intervals between more pressing work [a phrase to which many of us can relate!], by Mr. Harold Mattingly ... and on his transference to Department of Coins and Medals was continued by Mr. I.A.K. Burnett. On the outbreak of war in August, 1914, Mr. Burnett, and also Mr. Mattingly, volunteered for military service. The preparation and indexing of the List were then far advanced, and the work was taken up and seen through the press by Mr. A.W. Pollard ... who had previously to some extent supervised it."
Although far from exhaustive, the List a convenient first place to check for information about book-sale catalogues prior to 1901. There are now other more exhaustive sources of information for the period before 1801, such as Munby and Coral, and the late Robin Alston's Inventory of Sale Catalogues, but these can be hard to locate in hardcopy, and are not available online.

There are a few tricks to using the List efficiently, but first, three notes about its extent and limitations:
  • Although many other countries have important traditions of book sales, of course, England (and particularly London) has always played a disproportionately important role. So much so, that it has not been uncommon for Continental libraries to be shipped to London for sale. So while the List contains the libraries of a large number of non-English collectors, it only covers sales that took place in England.
  • It only includes catalogues that were present in the British Museum (now the British Library) before 1915. It thus excludes hundreds of book-sale catalogues of which the BM/BL did not have its own copy, or which have been acquired since 1915.
  • The List is, in one very important respect discussed below, not a comprehensive list of all the copies of the catalogues in the BM/BL.
If one's starting-point is the date of a pre-1901 English sale (perhaps one has identified a manuscript in the Schoenberg database), even if one does not know the same of  the consignor, one can turn straight to the main chronological sequence of the List and will, in all likelihood, find a reference to the catalogue. It might look like this, on one of the pages for the year 1816:
Which may be interpreted as follows:
  • "[Talleyrand ... Autun.]"
    • The sale was anonymous, but the BM/BL cataloguers have supplied the consignor's name and an epithet in square brackets.
  • "Bibliotheca Splendidissima ... etc."
    • The title of the catalogue.
  • "With preface"
    • The catalogue has a preface that may contain useful supplementary information about the collection or individual items in it. In this case, the Preface includes these unusual notes (apparently the auction house was keen to emphasise that the library had left France in "licensed vessels" several months before the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815):
  • "Priced"
    • The BM/BL copy/copies are annotated with the prices achieved at the sale; if it were a booksellers catalogue selling the books at fixed prices it would indicate this with "P.F.", and if these prices were printed in the catalogue, with "P.F.P."
  • "L. & S."
    • This can be confusing to a new user of the List. In each year of the chronological sequence, a bookseller or auctioneer's name is given in full only at it first occurrence; thereafter it is given in abbreviated form. So in this case, one needs to turn back a page to discover that "L. & S." is short for "Leigh & Sotheby", the company now known as Sotheby's.
  • "8 May"
    • The date of the first day of the sale, which may have extended over many days, or even weeks. Occasionally one will find a reference to a manuscript having been bought at an auction on, say, 20 May 1816, but will find no catalogue with that date, and will search in vain through the catalogues of adjacent dates. In such cases it could be that the manuscript was bought in a sale that started some days or weeks earlier. In the case of the present Talleyrand sale, the auction lasted 18 days, spread across four weeks and into June:
  • "S.-C.S. 95. (1.) & 270. k. 38."
    • This is the most cryptic feature of each entry and represents the shelfmarks of the BM/BL's copies of the catalogues.
      • "270. k. 38". This is a standard type of shelfmark for BM/BL books.
      • "S.-C.S. 95. (1.)". Shelfmarks beginning "S.-C." stand for "Sale Catalogue", and are followed by the name of the company such as Sotheby, Maggs, Puttick, Evans, Wheatley, and so on. In some important cases (including Sotheby, Evans, Southgate, Lewis, Wheatley, and Puttick) they represent the auction house's own master copies of their own catalogues, as used by the auctioneer in the rostrum as he was conducting the sale, annotated with buyers' names and prices, and sporadically with other information such as reserve prices (in code) or consignors' names. In the present example, "S.-C.S. 95. (1.)" means that the catalogue is available in the "S.-C. Sotheby's" series, as the first item bound in volume 95. One can then either order the catalogue itself, or (for Sotheby's sales until 1970) the microfilm version of it.
One may be lucky and find a digitized copy of the catalogue online. In the  case of the present example, it appears that Google Books have digitized at least three copies, but none of them currently allow a preview. seems, at the time of writing, to have no copies. There is, however, a scan of the Harvard copy available through the Hathi Trust.

If, instead of a sale-date, one starts with a person's name, and one wants to know if they sold a library, one can start with the alphabetical Index. This may reveal that the collector's library was dispersed in more than one sale:
allowing one to find the details of the other sales, in this case in 1793 and 1817:

The heading at the top of the first page of the Index alerts one to an important feature of the List: catalogues that are available in the Department of Manuscripts' reference library, but not in the main Library collection, are listed separately after the main chronological series:

What this heading does not tell the reader, however, is that it includes only catalogues that do not appear in the main list, and does not include further copies of catalogues that are in the main list. This is important and very regrettable because the Departmental collection is very extensive, and includes many hundreds of catalogues formerly owned by Frederic Madden, annotated by him not only with prices and buyers' names, but also with details such as names of previous owners, notes on condition, sketches of heraldic arms, identifications of texts and authors, corrections to the printed date ascribed to MSS, etc. They represent a hugely important and under-used resource. And if Madden took an interest in a manuscript in a sale catalogue, there is a good chance that it will be mentioned in his voluminous diaries (perhaps the subject of a future blog post?), of which the originals are at the Bodleian, and a photocopy are on the open shelves at the British Library.

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