Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 33. Sale by auction

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 33. Sale by auction

The “sale of books by way of auction, or who will give most for them” had already been in practice on the continent for three quarters of a century when William Cooper, a bookseller who carried on business at the Pelican in Little Britain, introduced it into England. The first sale was that of the library of the late Lazarus Seaman; it began on 31 October, 1676, and occupied eight days. The success of this experiment soon caused the innovation to become popular, and, before the end of the century, considerably over one hundred auctions had taken place. The majority of these sales were held by Cooper and Edward Millington, the latter a born auctioneer, whose quick wit and wonderful fluency of speech contributed in no small degree to his success in this rôle. He may have professed that his object was to afford “diversion and entertainment” without any sinister regard to profit or advantage; but, by his ready fund of professional patter, he could often enhance the values of his wares, “and sell’em by his Art for twice their worth.”

Booksellers were not long in perceiving that this method of disposing of private libraries might, with similar advantage, be applied to relieving their own shelves of overweighted stock, and quite a number of sales consisted of books from this source. Prominent among the many who conducted book auctions in the eighteenth century are Christopher Bateman, the Ballards, Lockyer Davis and his son-in-law, John Egerton. Samuel Paterson, too, who gave up bookselling for auctioneering, was, in his day, a noted cataloguer, with a wide and curious knowledge of the contents of books; but he had an invincible weakness for dipping into any volume that might excite his curiosity during cataloguing, so it not infrequently happened that catalogues were ready only a few hours before the time of the sale. The domus auctionaria which Samuel Baker set up in York street, Covent garden, in 1744, was the earliest establishment devoted entirely to book auctions. On Baker’s death, in 1788, his partner George Leigh of the famous crumple-horn-shaped snuff-box, associated with himself Samuel Sotheby, and thus brought into the firm a name which has survived to the present day.

The chief rules under which sales were conducted were much akin to those still customary; but the sums by which bids advanced were curiously small, a penny being a common bid. Tricks of the trade developed on both sides with the progress of the business. Cases of an auctioneer raising the prices by phantom bids were not unknown; and already, in 1721, we find suggestion of the fraudulent “knock-out” in practice among booksellers. Concerning a certain auction in that year, Humfrey Wanley, in his journal as Harleian librarian, records “for the information of posterity … that the books in general went at low, or rather at vile rates: through a combination of the booksellers against the sale”; and he observes, also, that the current prices of books had much advanced during late years.