Auctions | August 12, 2011

Record Prices for Rare Books on China

As China continues her strong economic growth, and takes her place as one of the great world powers, so too has interest grown in important historical works on the Middle Kingdom. This was hammered home at the auction by PBA Galleries of San Francisco of a small but significant group of rare books on China from the private collection of Margaret Gee, held on August 11, 2011, in a sale of Americana - Travel & Exploration - Maps - Ephemera. Record prices were achieved, with bids coming in from both the eastern and western hemispheres over Internet and telephone, as well as attendees at the auction.
The first of the major works in the collection to hit the block was the Novus Atlas Sinensis of Martinus Martini, c.1655, with 17 double-page engraved maps with hand coloring in outline, the first European atlas of China, issued as the sixth volume in Joannes Blaeu’s Novus Atlas. The lot opened at $20,000, the starting price driven by strong absentee bidding to midway in the $15,000/25,000 estimate. That was not enough, however, and the superb atlas, in a contemporary brown morocco binding, was to sell to an internet bidder from China for $27,000. Next up was Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s two-volume Description of the Empire of China and Chinese-Tartary, 1738-41, with 64 copper-engraved maps, plans & plates, most folding. Estimated at $8,000/12,000, the start in the room was $11,000, the result of multiple absentee bids. Competing against both floor and Internet, a telephone bidder from England captured the lovely copy at $15,600. Following Jean-Baptiste Grosier’s General Description of China, 1788, which sold for “only” $1,560 against a $700/1000 estimate, was another highlight of the sale, Isidore Helman’s very rare Faits memorabiles des empereurs de la Chine, also published in 1788. A series of 24 folio copper-engraved plates, in uncolored state, this copy was without the title-page, dedication-leaf, or 24 text pages, hence the rather conservative estimate of $3,000/5,000. The lot opened above the high estimate, at $5,500, but that was of no consequence, and the final price was $24,000, selling to a determined international phone bidder.
Soon to follow was the highlight of the auction, a striking set of John Ogilby’s translations of Jan Nieuhoff’s An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China, 1669, and Arnoldus Montanus’ Atlas Chinensis, 1671. With numerous copper-engraved plates and text illustrations, and uniformly bound in later full calf with modern rebacking, the two folio volumes were in exceptional condition, a fact not lost on the enthusiastic bidders. Vying against an Internet bidder, a customer in the room finally prevailed, but not before being forced to $42,000, far above the pre-sale estimate of $12,000/18000. George Staunton’s An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China..., 1798, three volumes including the folio atlas, saw similar success, but on a smaller scale - estimated at $5,000/8,000, it was finally laid to rest at $13,200. There were other, less expensive works relating to China in the auction, but all engendered competition, with most selling within or above the estimate ranges. All prices listed here include a 20% buyer’s premium.
The full catalogue, and results of each lot, may be viewed at the PBA website, All items are pictured in the online catalogue, but high-resolution images for each of the lots described in this article, suitable for publication, may be received via email. Contact
For information about consigning material to PBA Galleries’ future auctions, please contact Bruce MacMakin (