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Book auctions then and now: 1837 Peover Hall

I rarely feel more comfortable than when viewing a book sale, or reading a sale catalogue. The thrill of a new discovery, or rediscovery of a long-lost treasure, calls me to sales all around the country. I also find it difficult to dispose of even the most mundane and uninteresting catalogues of sales gone by, not least because every so often we pick up eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples to feature in our catalogues – and I wouldn’t want to deprive a future bookseller of the pleasure of rediscovering an old catalogue.

The autumn 2015 auction season has only just begun in earnest. Catalogues from the main London sale-rooms have started to arrive and promise some interesting lots. One or two items have turned up in the usual places, and a now relatively rare beast, a decent country-house sale in the shires, unhappily coincided with a brief European holiday.

But for those of us, myself included, who when we run out of catalogues for future auctions like to explore the lots of book sales gone by, that country-house sale encouraged me to write up and share this example of a very early Victorian sale catalogue.


Poever Hall in Knutsford remained in the Mainwairing family from the Conquest through to the early nineteenth-century, and its library, sold only a few months after the coronation of the young Queen Victoria, contained a number of treasures. Very interestingly for those interested in the history of book auctions and the book trade in general, this copy has been neatly annotated with the names of purchasers and prices realised. What a treat!

Two Caxtons topped the billing, and the prices realised: The Game of Chesse ‘one of the first books printed in England…1474’ reaching £101, and The Tale of Troy, ‘imperfect….said to be the first book printed in England’ £54, both to Mr. Rodd. Prices for each would be measured in millions today, indeed a rather defective copy of Caxton’s Bruges printed Chesse, the second book printed in the English language, fetched over $100,000 in its last appearance in the salerooms (1971).


Other highlights included a number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, a 1549 Tyndall (£7 5s), a Shakespeare second folio (Rodd, £8 15s), Pynson’s 1525 Froissart (Dugard, £16 10s), Walton’s Polyglot Bible (£24 3s) and, somewhat remarkably, a copy of Dugdale’s Monasticon (£11). Indeed Dugdale’s works did remarkably well in their entirety: first editions of his Baronage made £5 15s (Rodd), the Antiquities of Warwickshire £11 and the Origines Juridiciales, admittedly ‘with many MS. additions’ fetched a rather staggering £10 – both to Crossley.

Peover 5

Needless to say, prices and demand for Mr. Shakespeare has endured rather better than that for Mr. Dugdale.

To further illustrate the changing tastes apparent in the evolution of book-collecting, a first edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, with a first of the same author’s posthumous Essays on philosophical subjects included in the lot, reached a mere 17s courtesy of a forward thinking Mr Adamson; the same amount as Drinkwater’s Siege of Gibraltar, a near contemporary publication. The former now retails for 6 figures, the later would be priced in the low hundreds.


What would Antiquates have been after? Lots 497 and 498, respectively ‘Poetical Commentary on the Pater Noster, Ms. on Vellum, very curious‘ and ‘A Curious MS. of Devotional Poetry, Eng. and Lat. on vellum’ both sound rather tempting. Several of the later bundle lots mention obscure John Donne items that we would expect, at least in the twenty-first century, to have no difficult putting into the right hands.

We’ll be taking this catalogue, along with a number of other noteworthy books and manuscripts, along to the Chelsea Book Fair on November 6-7th – free tickets available here.

If you’d like to be added to our mailing list to receive our short catalogue for the fair and all future catalogues, you can sign up here.

UPDATE: Lot 497, purchased at this sale by James Crossley, is most likely the Corser manuscript, now at the John Rylands library at the University of Manchester. More details and a picture are available on their website by clicking here.