Incredible Collection of Dictionaries & Lexicography Upcoming at Bonhams

New York—Thomas Malin Rodgers, Jr. (1943-2012) formed an incredibly extensive collection of dictionaries and other lexicographical works, spanning 3,500 years in date—from a 16th-century B.C. cuneiform tablet to a first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary issued in parts from 1884 to 1933. Bonhams December 4 auction in New York features more than 200 outstanding and often unique items—a choice selection from Rodgers’ comprehensive collection, valued at close to $1 million.

Dictionaries share a common practical purpose, but their medium, decoration, and specific use varies widely as does their appeal for different types of collectors. A Babylonian clay tablet from Syria, circa 1600-1500 BC, provides a list of fish and was used for teaching purposes (est. $1,500-$2,500). A Coptic-Greek glossary, written on vellum in Egypt in the 6th or 7th century, was likely intended for use by a professional scribe in the civil service (est. $12,000-$18,000).
There are five substantial medieval manuscript lexicons in the auction, quite a high number given that medieval dictionaries were heavily used and often read to pieces. One slim volume is an encyclopedic compendium of things and places mentioned in the Bible, penned in England shortly after it was compiled by the Franciscan, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, circa 1245. The entries reveal perceptions of the regions and people, for example noting the English (residents of Albion) as “well-spoken and courageous” and the Normans as “strong, brave, fine warriors and well-dressed.”  This example is one of the earliest possible translations and substantially predates any other Anglo-Norman copy (est. $12,000-$18,000).

Papias the Grammarian is considered to have written the first modern dictionary in the 11th century: monolingual, organized alphabetically and with indications of gender, declension and pronunciation. On offer is a 13th century Italian manuscript of Papias’s dictionary, being the only Papias manuscript we trace on the market since 1903 (est. $25,000-$35,000).

More than 20 incunable volumes highlight the sale, including a 1499 Greek guide for readers of Homer, edited by Marcus Musurus. It is a magnificent printing in a newly cut Greek fount and with decorative headpieces, initials and capitals all printed in red. It is one of several examples of early Greek printing in the sale, some others being the first edition of the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia, printed in 1499 in Milan (est. $20,000-$30,000); Hesychius of Alexandria’s Lexikon, printed by Aldus in 1514 (est. $5000-8000); and Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon, printed by Aldus in 1502 ($8000-$12,000).

Missionary work to China in the 17th century prompted the compilation of one of the rarest and culturally significant texts in the sale: a manuscript Chinese/Spanish dictionary by Francisco Diaz (1606-1646). Diaz was a Dominican missionary who reached the Fuan region of China in 1635. His lexicographical work pre-dates by a generation the first published western Chinese grammar (1703) and is one of the earliest western-Chinese dictionaries known.

Noah Webster published the first edition of his seminal An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. This auction includes both a first edition of that work (est. $7000-$10,000) and a manuscript leaf in his hand featuring 12 words with definitions from “Bestain” through “Bestorm” (est. $8,000-$12,000). Also of interest for Americans is the first dictionary of the New World, a Spanish-Nahuatl vocabulary printed in Mexico City in 1571 (est. $15,000-$25,000). 


Preview:     December 1 and 2, 12pm-5pm; December 3, 10am-7pm; December 4, 10am-12pm
Auction:     December 4 in New York at 1pm
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