June 2010 | Jeremy Dibbell

Auction Preview: Arcana Collection

Christie's London will be auctioning the first part of what they're calling "the most valuable collection of illuminated manuscripts ever offered at auction" on 7 July. The first 48 lots from theArcana Collection, comprising illuminated manuscripts and incunabula, are estimated to fetch £11-16 million. The collector has been identified as Ladislaus von Hoffmann, a Washington financier who is on the board of trustees at the Morgan Library & Museum (among other organizations), and founded the Arcana Foundation, Inc.

A neat thing about this sale is that Christie's has included short audio clips from experts about selected lots; you can find these underneath the images in the lot descriptions.

You know it's an important sale when a Nuremberg Chronicle (in Latin) is among the ten lots with the lowest expected estimates; it's listed at £28,000-35,000. Another copy of theNuremberg Chronicle, this one a German copy with rich contemporary illuminations and binding, is estimated at £120,000-160,000.

I'll preview a few of the items from this sale, but the one that really excites me is Lot 5, Jean Grolier's copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Aldus Manutius: Venice, 1499). It's in a Gommar Estienne binding done for Grolier (c. 1552-1555), and post-Grolier owners include Alexandre Albert François, Prince de Bournonville; the great English bibliophile George John, 2nd Earl Spencer; and the John Rylands Library in Manchester (with Spencer's collection; it was deaccessioned and sold at Sotheby's, 1988).

Interestingly, Grolier owned at least five copies of the Hypnerotomachia, including one other bound by Estienne. Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote about this copy in his work on Earl Spencer's collection, calling it "the most perfect specimen of the press of Aldus. ... Everything in it conspires to charm the tasteful collector [and to] delight and gratify the judgment of the Virtuoso. ... The present copy ... is perhaps unrivalled for its size and beauty." This beautiful book, with a most fascinating pedigree, is estimated to sell for £220,000-260,000.

The lot which rates the top estimate is the Abbey Bible, a fabulously-illuminated manuscript on vellum (Bologna, 1260s) produced for use in a Dominican convent. It's estimated at £2.5-3.5 million. Another top lot is expected to be a book of hours/psalter produced for Elizabeth de Bohun (England, 14th century) and later owned by members of the Astor family. Its estimate is £2-3 million.

Among the other important illuminated manuscripts are the Cauchon Hours, made in the mid-15th century for a noble family of Rheims. This is estimated at £800,000-1,200,000. A book of hours produced for François I (1539-40) by the Master of François de Rohan rates an estimate of £300,000-500,000.

Incunabula include the first edition in Italian of Pliny's Historia naturalis (Venice, 1476), with illuminations; Adrianus Brielis' edition of Hieronymus' Epistolae (Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 7 September 1470), printed on vellum, with contemporary Schoeffer-workshop decoration. This has passed through the libraries of Sir Thomas Phillipps and Countess Doheny. It's estimated at £800,000-1,200,000. A copy of the first Italian illustrated version of Boccaccio's Decameron, bound with Masuccio's Novellino (both 1492), is estimated at £220,000-280,000. Another Boccaccio work, De claris mulieribus (1473), one of the first works printed at Ulm (and the first illustrated book published there), is expected to sell for £250,000-350,000.

This is going to be a fascinating sale to watch as these amazing and unique items change hands. I'll be sure to have a report once the hammer comes down.

Later sales from the Arcana Collection will include Books and Manuscripts, and Old Master Prints.