Auctions | October 28, 2015

Inscribed First Editions of the World’s Best Books at Sotheby’s London on November 24


A unique private British library of over 140 first-edition books, shining light on the stories behind Britain’s most-loved novels and poems, will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London on 24 November 2015. From “The Importance of Being Earnest”, to “The Wind in The Willows”, “Tarzan” and James Bond, each and every book includes a hand-written inscription from the author, and was gifted in thanks to their friends, family or individuals who inspired their work. Collected over 40 years by an English bibliophile, they provide a glimpse into the forgotten narratives behind over 300 years of literary production. With individual estimates ranging from £700-£150,000, they are together expected to fetch £1.5-2 million at Sotheby’s “Library of an English Bibliophile” sale.


OSCAR WILDE, The Importance of Being Earnest (1899), est. £150,000-200,000 Given by Oscar Wilde to his first lover Robert Ross: ("To | The mirror of | perfect friendship: | Robbie: | Whose name I | have written on the portal | of this little play. | Oscar. | Feb. 99.")

Acknowledged by Wilde as his first male lover, Ross showed fierce loyalty to Wilde throughout his life even once their affair had mellowed into friendship. When Wilde was arrested for gross indecency, Ross broke into the poet’s home to stop his papers and manuscripts falling into the hands of the police, and later worked to rescue Wilde’s estate from bankruptcy and regain the rights to the works which had been previously sold, which eventually led to the publication of Earnest in 1899. Wilde dedicated the play to Ross, and presented him with this, his own inscribed copy. On Wilde’s death Ross commissioned the Epstein sculpture for his grave in Paris. On the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s death Ross’s own ashes were placed in a special compartment in the same sculpture.

QUEEN VICTORIA [Agnes Strickland], Queen Victoria from Her Birth to Her Bridal (1840) Extensively annotated and corrected in Queen Victoria’s hand, est. £10,000-15,000.

Queen Victoria was so displeased with Strickland’s biography of her early life that she scribbled corrections over 100 pages of this book ("not true", "quite false", “absurd” and "nonsense"), and returned it to the author. So upset with the offense she had caused, Strickland made arrangements to have all the other copies of the book she could find pulped, likely making this one of very few surviving copies. The book made such an impression that nearly 100 years later, in 1932, George V contacted Strickland’s descendants with a request to read the work which had so enraged his grandmother.

IAN FLEMING, You Only Live Twice (1964) Given to Richard Hughes, the inspiration behind his character Richard Lovelace “Dikko Henderson”. ("To | Dikko-san | from | Fleming-san. | With all affection"), est. £20,000-30,000.

Hughes was the Sunday Times' ebullient, hard-drinking Far East Correspondent, whose job it was to accompany the author on his five-week Thrilling Cities tour. The Australian ex-boxer, and former part-time spy for MI6, was rewarded for his services by Fleming by becoming a dedicatee of “You Only Live Twice”, and being immortalised as the character "Dikko" Henderson (an Australian spy stationed in Japan). Hughes was also the model for Bill Craw in John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy.

KENNETH GRAHAME, The Wind in The Willows (1908), Est. £20,000-30,000.

Given by Kenneth Grahame to his old friend, the novelist and journalist, Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934) in the hope that he would arrange for the book to be reviewed in Punch. Unfortunately, this backfired a little. Punch published an unflattering review, simply declaring the tale "a sort of irresponsible holiday story".

WINSTON CHURCHILL, The World Crisis (1931), inscribed to Neville Chamberlain. Est. £10,000-15,000.

From the greatest of all the war-time leaders, who would“"never surrender", to the one-time proponent of the policy of“"Appeasement", this is a highly resonant copy of Churchill’s account of the First World War, linking the two future war-time Prime Ministers.

JAMES JOYCE, Ulysses (1922), est. £100,000-150,000.

An inscribed presentation copy of arguably the greatest novel of the century, in lovely, unrestored condition, given to Joyce’s friend the left-wing writer, David Karsner. Karsner was a writer for the New York socialist daily paper, “New York Call”, and authored the biography of Eugene V. Debs (one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World).

WILLIAM MORRIS, The Roots of The Mountains (1890), est. £20,000-30,000, given to Oscar Wilde. 

On receiving this book, Wilde wrote Morris an effusive letter of thanks, “it is pure art, everything that you do... I shall always love it”. However, considering the near perfect condition of this present copy, it seems likely that Wilde never actually read the book (or at least not this copy). Five years later, in 1895, it was included in Wilde’s bankruptcy auction.

JOHN STEINBECK’s, The Grapes of Wrath, est. £20,000-30,000. Inscribed to the producer of the cinematic adaptation in thanks: ("For Darryl Zannuck | with thanks for a fine | picture | John Steinbeck | 1939 Los Gatos").

The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first 25 films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1989 for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance, and Steinbeck loved the adaptation. "Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly has a hard, truthful ring. No punches were pulled? in fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far."

T.E. LAWRENCE, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A Triumph (1926) 

Inscribed to his solicitor Edward Eliot “with apologies for ? the trouble it is ? going to bring him” thanks to the author’s complex and intricate publishing and copyright arrangements. Est. £40,000-60,000.

OSCAR WILDE, Poems (1892), est. £15,000-20,000.

A present to the political hostess and diarist Margot Tennant, a close friend of the writer since childhood. She later married H.H. Asquith (Prime Minister 1908-16)-the same man who was to sign Wilde's arrest warrant in 1895.

ROBERT GRAVES, Fairies And Fusiliers (1917), Est. £2,000-3,000. Inscribed to O.M. Roberts, the soldier who saved his life at the battle of the Somme on 20th July 1916: ("If it hadn't been for you, butty, | this book would be unwritten."). Graves was so badly wounded that he was initially left for dead and was later able to read his own obituary in The Times.