Historic Irish library could make more than £1.8m at auction

Private collection of 19th-century judge includes early editions of Shakespeare, Swift and Bacon, as well as medieval works

One of the most important collections of historic books, including various Shakespeare folios, a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, signed copies of Wordsworth’s poems and medieval manuscripts, is to go on sale next week. The books form part of a historic library amassed more than 100 years ago in Ireland, the sale of which could exceed £1.8m when auctioned by Sotheby’s on 7 June.

The highlight of the sale is expected to be the Shakespeare folios, which a spokeswoman for the auctioneer described as “the bedrock of the literary culture in the English-speaking world”. The second (published in 1632, 30 years after his death), third (1664) and fourth (1685) will be sold. The third folio is the rarest because an unknown number of unsold copies were destroyed when the Great Fire of London ripped through the city’s booksellers in 1666. It is expected to fetch up to £50,000.

1726 first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Giant shopping ... 1726 first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Photograph: Sotheby's

To complement the Shakespeare, there is a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which is widely believed to have provided inspiration for Shakespeare’s history plays, and a 1561 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The playwright is believed to have used the same edition as the source for his play Troilus and Cressida.

Another famous inspiration in the sale is Jonathan Swift’s copy of the Welsh pirate Lionel Wafer’s account of his travels to the western coast of South America and the West Indies, published in 1699. It is believed to have served as inspiration for Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels – a first edition of which is also included in the sale.

Other books expected to be in demand among collectors are a rare first edition of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, one of the key texts in the development of modern scientific thought. It is expected to fetch up to £50,000. The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which is described by the auctioneer as the most elaborately illustrated books printed in Europe in the 15th century. The book, estimated to fetch up to £40,000, was printed by Albrecht Dürer’s godfather Anton Koberger and is filled with thousands of woodcuts of kings, queens, martyrs and monsters, as well as early representations of towns – although Peter Selley, Sotheby’s book specialist, said many of them sprang from the illustrators’ imaginations rather than reality.

Bibliophile William O’Brien amassed the books in the 1880s and 1890s. An Irish judge, O’Brien’s previous claim to fame was presiding over the infamous Phoenix Park murder trial in 1882. The library has hardly been touched or catalogued since it was left to the care of the Jesuit community college at Milltown in Dublin, following the judge’s death a century ago.

Medieval book of hours from William O’Brien’s library.
Medieval book of hours from William O’Brien’s library. Photograph: Sotheby's

Because the collection is rarely used by scholars and many of the manuscripts need specialist care, the Jesuits have decided to sell the library, in the hope of finding collectors who will preserve and enjoy the books.

Describing the library as a “time capsule” of late 19th-century book collecting, Selley said: “It’s a very special collection. It was put together at a time when many country house libraries were coming onto the market, so at that point you had a great choice of what to buy.”

Of the highlights, the books specialist said his particular favourite was Richard Hakluyt’s Principles of Navigation, which was printed at the end of the 16th century. “Hakluyt corresponded with many of the great explorers of the age, including Francis Drake. So it includes some of the earliest descriptions from the Age of Discovery. However, there is also a lot of conjecture in the descriptions.” The book also provides a rare glimpse into the intrigues of the Elizabethan court: a reference in the book to the Earl of Essex’s “victory at Cadiz” was suppressed entirely from the second edition, after Elizabeth I’s favourite had been executed for treason.

Judge William O’Brien.
Judge William O’Brien. Photograph: Sotheby's

Collectors’ interest will be piqued by the incunabula – books printed before 1501 – which is described as one of the most important collections ever assembled. Containing 100 texts, it is a rare exploration of early modern and late medieval travel, thinking and theology. An indication of the size of the collection is that the University of Cambridge had one of the largest libraries at the beginning of the 14th century, which consisted of 122 books.

Selley said that interest in buying rare books has moved in recent years from the English-speaking world to include Asia, especially China. “The collecting fraternity is shifting,” he said. “It used to be very much the Anglo-American and European market. Then the Japanese began collecting Shakespeare folios, but that interest has been replaced by new markets in Asia.”


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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