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Old World Auctions

Jean Grolier’s copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Einstein’s autographed draft of his General Theory of Relativity are among the notable buys this summer

Arcana I: St. Jerome Illuminated

St. Hieronymus, Epistolae, £937,250 ($1,416,185) at Christie’s London on July 7.

A gloriously illuminated Epistolae, printed in Mainz in 1470 by Peter Schoeffer. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The Arcana collection, a stunning selection of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books assembled over three decades by American financier and philanthropist Ladislaus von Hoffman, was without doubt one of the high spots of the London saleroom year. Two or three manuscripts that could have added several millions to the total for this first sale (a second is scheduled for October 27) failed to sell, but the breadth of interest in the collection overall was reflected in the fact that the top ten lots went to ten different buyers and even those with no real buying aspirations made repeated visits just to view these exceptional works.

Epistolae in a contemporary binding of blind-stamped calf with brass center and corner pieces, sold in the first selection of Arcana manuscripts and books in July. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The incunabula certainly fared better, with only two of the nineteen lots left unsold and a dozen setting new auction records, so although I have already featured two items from the collection in my reports—the little Roman guide book and the early herbal, the Gart der Gesundheit, illustrated and described last month—I hope that readers will indulge my love of such things with just two more books.

The most expensive of the Arcana books was this copy of Peter Schoeffer’s 1470, Mainz printing of the letters and tracts of St. Hieronymus, or St. Jerome if you prefer. One of only sixteen recorded vellum copies, it has decoration and illumination associated with Schoeffer’s own workshops, and the two volumes are in splendidly preserved contemporary bindings of blind-stamped calf with chased brass center and corner pieces.

With few rivals in the quality and richness of its decoration and in quite remarkable condition, this is a copy that was once part of the vast collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) and, more recently, in the library of Countess Estelle Doheny. It sold at $1,045,000 in one of the latter’s sales at Christie’s New York in 1987, but this time it cost a European collector a great deal more.

Arcana II: Poliphilo’s Dream

Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, £313,250 ($473,321) at Christie’s London on July 7.

A page from the infamous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, once owned by Jean Grolier. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The St. Jerome was a supreme example of the early printed book made to look like what the most demanding bibliophiles and libraries of the age had been used to and still cherished—costly illuminated manuscripts—but my second selection for this month, whilst still an example of the book as art, is very different in conception.

It was in the 1980s that the Arcana collection took delivery of a very special first of the most famous illustrated book of the Italian Renaissance, the 1499 Aldine edition of Colonna’s treatise on art and aesthetics in the form of an allegorical romance. This is a work in which elegant woodcuts are combined with fine typography and page design to produce the book beautiful, a fifteenth-century livre d’artiste.

The Parisian binding of brown calf gilt made by Gommar Estienne for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili sold in July’s Arcana collection sale. Courtesy of Christie’s.

In an equally elegant Parisian binding of brown calf gilt made by Gommar Estienne of Paris for the greatest bibliophile of the age, Jean Grolier, this was the copy later acquired by the 2nd Earl Spencer, whose books were sold by his heirs to form one of England’s great libraries, the John Rylands in Manchester.

As one of the duplicates deaccessioned by that library at Sotheby’s in 1988, it had sold at £187,000 (then $362,780), and this summer it brought another of those record bids in selling to a London dealer, Robin Halwas.

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