Selling books at auction in 19th-century Australia: The 2009 Ferguson Memorial Lecture.
I have been very careful to include in my work all disposal catalogues of libraries of rare books on any subject, and shall continue to watch for such, realising their importance.
By and large, however, book auction catalogues are absent from the 1851-1900 record, whereas they fit naturally in their places in volumes I to IV. There are omissions, of course, and, as we shall see, this reflects the particular difficulties one has in gathering some of the most fragile and ephemeral products of the printing press. For me at least there can be no more suitable subject to treat in assessing, and paying tribute to, Ferguson's achievement.
I need to say a word about my contacts with Sir John and with his work. He received his honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Sydney at the same ceremony in 1955 at which I graduated Bachelor of Arts. Was I aware of him before then? It is not certain, because I was not an Australianist and had not been trained in bibliography. On the other hand I had passed the house at 81 Clanville Road, Roseville, literally thousands of times, little suspecting what treasures it contained. If there were such a thing as an effluvium of bibliomania, someone brought up in the suburbs of Ferguson, Sir William Dixson and Dr Leslie Cowlishaw (3) could be thought to be dangerously--and deliciously--exposed to it. At all events I went off to France, had much more to do with the bibliographical publications on alchemy and early chemistry of another John Ferguson (4) and then returned to Sydney to be caught up in the Australian book world. Amongst other things this involved participation in the activities of the interim committee of the Friends of the University of Sydney Library and therefore, unavoidably, a rewarding and all too brief association with Ferguson and with his friend Sir Edward Ford. In time Australia became a focus of my enthusiasm for book history. At that point it seemed necessary to own the Bibliography of Australia, which remains one of the most consulted sets in my personal library.
Unlike many philosophical and literary treatises or essays, great bibliographies are less subject to changing fashions and have a commensurably longer life. But it is not an uncontested one. Quickly people spring up to announce that some pamphlet or other is 'not in ... [in this instance, Ferguson]'. With the passage of time new discoveries are made, new techniques of investigation are devised, and there are calls for revision. This is to be expected: a massive work of scholarship is a challenge, an incitement, a provocation. We all want to crowd onto the giant's shoulders. Recent events--notably a present brought from Canada to Australia in September 2007--are driving attempts to correct or, better, to extend some of the oldest and most solid parts of the Ferguson corpus, that devoted to our first printers, Hughes and Howe. (5) To be the unchallenged authority for three-quarters of a century is remarkable, and I am sure Sir John would have welcomed some of the fresh research now in progress. Similarly, as a master collector whose bibliography was practised in the field, he would have understood all the pitfalls in the way of attempts to give a comprehensive and coherent account of the book sales that tell us so much about the culture--in the widest possible sense--of the Australian colonies in the 19th century.
Not surprisingly, the attention of researchers over several decades has concentrated on the records of the collections formed by exceptional people: writers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, professors, journalists. The number of relevant studies for 19th-century Australia is already quite large. (6) Ferguson's curiosity, then, was widely shared. Despite all the precautions students of reading have to take--books may have been inherited, possession is not consumption, and so forth--there is no doubt that the careers of people as diverse as John Pascoe Fawkner, R. H. Home, Redmond Barry, James Smith, William Edward Hearn and Charles Pearson have been illuminated by careful examination of lists of titles owned. Where annotations, letters and diaries can be drawn into the analysis, the possibilities are even greater. However, the priority thus given to high spots masks the other uses that can be made of the evidence for the fashion for book auctions. If one is concerned with a wider context--the distribution of books, pamphlets and periodicals in colonial society-the documents need to be interrogated in other ways. To see what is happening and how people are obtaining access to printed matter, it is imperative to move away from a few favoured individuals and to try to grasp general trends. Predictably one has to accept as well the pre-eminence of Melbourne, the 'Chicago of the South', in the decades from the 1850s to the 1890s.
Three aspects of the general topic must be treated. First, the available documentation has to be indicated and evaluated. Second, the extent of the phenomenon, far more pervasive than in our 21st century, needs to be shown in a quick sketch of its variants and of its history. Third, questions should be asked about the way participants and onlookers viewed the operations of the auction mart. The evidence is far more fragmentary, but perceptions and judgments tell us a lot about confidence or the lack of it. This subjective element leads us to the heart of a major segment of the market before 1901.
In general there seems to be a dearth of surviving records of auctioneering firms dealing with books. For example, I sought in vain in 1970 any residual papers of Gemmell, Tuckett and Co, who, after being the specialist dispersers of libraries in central Melbourne for several decades, ended their days as suburban real-estate agents. Nonetheless, the astonishing discovery--in a dumpster at the wharves--of a substantial archive from Cole's Book Arcade reminded us in the late 20th century that it is dangerous to make definitive pronouncements about supposed disappearances. A careful audit of what is known to have been preserved in private or in public hands is overdue.
Business correspondence relating to book auctions also seems to be sparse. The London bookseller Edward Lumley, a specialist in remainders and in speculative consignments between the 1840s and the 1870s to many parts of the English-speaking world, had dealings with the Melbourne merchant James Graham early in this period, as one can glean from the letter-books in the University of Melbourne Archives. (7) At the other end of the chain, Quaritch kept the material relating to the consignments he sent in the 1880s and 1890s to an even wider range of ports across the world. These files--still with the firm, I understand--were generously opened to me in 1974 by Nicholas Poole-Wilson. The Wellington episode of 1893 was written up long ago, (8) but more needs to be said about the ventures in Sydney and Melbourne.
The offerings were, of course, different from the bread-and-butter consignments of mid-century, but the purpose remained much the same: clearing surplus stock that we might now put in the 'coffee-table' class to overseas customers whose taste and refinement were not being overestimated. At the same time it was hoped to attract durable custom from serious bookbuyers. The success was mixed because 'colonials', not least in Argentina, were not dupes of condescension. The catalogues, printed in London and sent with the cases of books, as well as the letters from agents prepared to remind Quaritch of the realities of distant but proud markets, are all there to fill out the story. Overall such caches of documents are exceptional.
Beyond specifically ear-marked dossiers, one has to go hunting in places where financial and commercial transactions have left their impression. Probate papers and bills of sale are potentially rich sources for the historian intent on following money trails. The archives of solicitors in our culture survive more or less by chance, unlike the incredibly rich hoards held by the French notaries and now deposited with the state. However, official records of bankruptcies, failures and the dispersal of estates do tell a tale for those patient enough to embark on laborious research. (9)
What is of central importance for the exploration of auctions is the newspaper advertisement. Forthcoming sales are announced, the significance of what is proposed is played up--and often puffed and overstated--the contents are indicated with more or less precision, sometimes in the form of detailed lists. Traditional manual indexes of newspapers usually ignored this advertised material in order to concentrate on the editorial columns, which, in the 19th century, rarely commented on sales. Digitisation will bring other possibilities of pinpointing specific owners and auctioneers, but not necessarily the browsing freedom given by hard copy and microfilms, neither of which is specially easy to use for the broadsheets of the period after 1850.
As a matter of course, auction advertisements state whether or not printed catalogues are available. Very few of them have survived after 1850--taking a guess, I would say less than 10 per cent and perhaps fewer again for certain decades. There are little concentrations due to the good fortune of collectors coming across tract volumes--usually from a trade source. Mitchell did reasonably well for the 1840s in Sydney, and four volumes put together by Robert Miller, who worked with Henry Tolman Dwight in Melbourne in the 1860s, came down via J. P. Quaine and Sid Grant to the State Library of Victoria. These are the exceptions. The rest is silence, broken from time to time by chance discoveries, no less numerous in recent years than throughout the 20th century. Ephemera can be lodged anywhere: tipped into unrelated volumes or incorporated in family papers. This is why the first four volumes of Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia have gaps in spite of their aim of completeness. Volumes V to VII, despite the contradiction between rationale and practice, bring relatively little, which is welcome for all that.
The essential complement to volumes I to IV of the Bibliography of Australia is contained in a series of articles by Elizabeth Webby based on her University of Sydney PhD thesis. (10) What she gave us was not just a list of catalogues not seen by Ferguson, but a list of all the advertisements of book sales and all the booksellers' announcements published in the newspapers of the Australian colonies up to and including 1849. Modern administrators would look askance at a thesis that with its appendices ran to four bound volumes of typescript, but all of us who work in the field are grateful for an invaluable source of information on the Australian book world in the first half of the 19th century. What is deplorable, on the other hand, is that the National Library of Australia's supplementary volume on the Bibliography of Australia I to IV did not list any of these items. One sometimes wonders whether people have noticed that we have--in our two countries of Australia and New Zealand--an active Bibliographical Society.
The mapping of comparable material for the second half of the 19th century is far less advanced. It is not hard to find the reason: there is a vastly greater amount to cover in metropolitan and, especially, country newspapers. Leaving aside booksellers' advertisements, even the lists of auctions containing at least some books are very numerous indeed and one has to pay attention to their nuances. In the early 1970s when universities had money almost lavished upon them, I was able to use some of the research assistance made available at Monash University's Department of French to scour the auction columns of the Melbourne Argus and The Sydney Morning Herald for the 1860s--1861 to 1870. The results of this search have been presented partially in a number of places, but nowhere more extensively than in an essay on 'John Pascoe Fawkner as a book collector' apropos of the sale catalogue of 1868. (11) In short, and in rough-and-ready figures determined by the greater difficulty of working with The Sydney Morning Herald's somewhat messier layout, there were 977 sales partly or entirely of books in Sydney and 591 in Melbourne. If indications of accompanying catalogues--most of them now lost-are counted, Melbourne with 202 outclasses Sydney with 137. The significance of all this deserves further commentary. For the moment it is enough to suggest that lists of sales and catalogues encompassing all the decades from the 1850s to the 1890s and the totality of the places where books were sold--colonial capitals and major country towns--would be very long indeed.
After half a century of modern book-history research, and given an enthusiasm for trade ephemera that is clearly reflected in prices realised at sales or in antiquarian catalogues, it is hardly astonishing that scholars and institutions across the world are paying close attention to these documents. Leaving aside what is being done in France and Belgium--not my business on this occasion--let us note that the pioneer endeavours of the British Museum in 1915 and of George L. McKay at the New York Public Library in 1937 have been followed by refinements concentrating on the period before the 19th century, which looms as a formidable obstacle everywhere. (12) Our bigger, and somewhat older, English-speaking brothers have outstanding central repositories at the British Library, the New York Public Library and the American Antiquarian Society. We, by contrast, depend very much more on the newspaper record of what survives and of what once existed.
It is sometimes good in these decadent times to be reminded that visitors to the Australian colonies in the 19th century, like Anthony Trollope and Sidney Webb, or even residents like Ada Cambridge practising a sort of 'inner emigration', had high opinions of our press. That point, again a little outside my subject today, concerned the editorial content. What is equally remarkable is that the advertising mirrors colonial material and intellectual culture in a very telling way, and not least for those of us interested in the history of print. All sorts of other specialists draw on the information provided, but they rarely think about the medium itself. For quite a number of years now I have been dreaming about a frankly polemical piece entitled 'The invisibility of print'.
What has to be stressed is that, especially in the early decades of the colonies, auctions dominated retail trade in ways that would puzzle us now. The establishment of regular distribution networks with appropriate roles for wholesalers and retailers did not happen uniformly across the various markets where the public sought provisions of all kinds. Apart from picturesquely anecdotal or unashamedly celebratory accounts, we have not had much serious historical scrutiny of the sector. The exception is a deceptively little book by Beverley Kingston. (13)
The book trade itself is a rather anomalous case. In Europe, and partly by virtue of its special relationship with the print medium, it was in the vanguard of modern commercial practices in advertising, fixed prices, remaindering, discounting, preselling through subscriptions and offering 'loss leaders'. In the Australian colonies it depended longer than many other branches on itinerant vendors, on alternative chains and, above all, on the auction mart. Full organisation in relation to new books, mostly and inevitably imported, did not come until the late 1850s. Even after that auctions remained essential for the circulation of old and secondhand books, an aspect of the market one forgets at one's peril.
Thus we have to take account of archaic structures of buying and selling. The world dominated by the Walches in Tasmania, George Robertson and Company in Melbourne and elsewhere, Samuel Mullen, even Cole's Book Arcade and, later, Angus & Robertson was slow in arriving. As recent unpublished work by Kevin Molloy reveals, (14) the Irish Catholic bookseller Jeremiah Moore in Sydney was a leading pioneer in setting his--niche--market on an orderly footing detached from the vagaries of auction sales of speculative consignments.
Right up to 1900, the last year of the century--a point on which people then had no doubts--most books in deceased and bankrupt estates as well as those on the shelves of people moving to other colonies or back to the Northern Hemisphere ended up in the hands of auctioneers. Calling in a bookseller to make an offer seems to have been quite exceptional, whereas it is now much more common. Although the strength of the trade itself waxed and waned in various places--crises were not uniformly timed or severe--it cannot be argued that there was no capacity to act in ways more familiar in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The import trade was carried largely by unsolicited consignments until the 1850s. Somebody, mostly in London, decided what would be good for 'colonials': often unsaleable remainders. After the great wholesalers--George Robertson of Melbourne foremost among them--took charge of things, selecting and buying in London with good discounts for cash, the speculators were crowded out, but they did not disappear, as the case of Quaritch shows and as one can verify from the auction columns. The problems of dearth and glut with which the Walches were familiar from their beginnings in Hobart in 1846, receded. Reliance on cases of books and prints shipped from British ports without serious reference to Australian tastes and needs became obsolete. In looking at the century as a whole, however, one has to be aware of these different phases of activity, for which the free trade initiated by Lord Campbell's Determination in 1852 and ended by the Net Book Agreement in 1899 was the backdrop. Yet the wholesalers themselves were not absent from an auction market in which local dispersals gradually displaced goods brought in from outside.
What, then, were the characteristics of these sales as they evolved over 10 decades? A sample, deliberately chosen from the beginnings at various times in four of the separate colonies, as they came to be by the middle of the century, and then essentially from the month of December 1900, will demonstrate the range and some of the emphases of the auction phenomenon. My debt to Elizabeth Webby for the early data will be clear, but I have gone back to the originals to study the wording of advertisements and their context.
The first recorded auction containing books was Lord's sale of William Cox's Brush Farm on 14 January 1805. The Sydney Gazette advertisement merely mentions 'various other Effects', but it is worthy of note that there were 'Printed particulars'; in other words, a now lost piece of Howe's unofficial work. Editorial comment a week later proves that there were books, Chambers' Cyclopaedia and Blackstone's Commentaries among them. On 23 September of the same year Lord sold at Larra's house in Parramatta effects from Sidaway's farm including some named books. In one final early example Bevan offered on 23 November 1805 the property of a 'GENTLEMAN about to depart the Colony'. This time more care is given to describing the books, as indeed often happened throughout the century when catalogues were not produced.
Similar patterns are observable in Hobart. A sale announced on 31 January 1818 has 'A collection of books'. On 21 February the same year Lewis sold, among many other things, 'a great variety of choice books'. Little more information is given about a sale on 29 September 1819 including 'a fine Edition of Burn's Justice, and 90 other Volumes on different Subjects', in the action of Sir John Jamison against Gordon. Such laconic reporting is a common frustration for the book historian, but auctioneers dealing with court-ordered sales were in a hurry and not attuned to bibliographical niceties.
The beginnings were free of consignments for all sorts of obvious reasons. By 1838 in Adelaide things were different. On 24 January 1838 Robert Cock offered 'at his Sale Rooms, Hindley Street': 'Two CASES OF BOOKS, ex Schah'. He noted that:
These cases contain many Standard Works and a variety of School Books, amounting to about 300 volumes. CATALOGUES to be obtained at the Sale Room two days previously to the day of Sale. (15)
We do not have the list, but we can assume that it was roughly prepared in haste. Six months later Cock sold 'all the effects of the late Mr EDWARDS', comprising principally named books on a variety of subjects, including 'Prospects of New South Wales', 'Enquiries of an Emigrant' and 'Torrens on Colonialization'. (16) The following year saw more substantial sales accompanied by catalogues: 1000 volumes plus a 'very splendid collection of prints' on 13 June, with a long list of items in the advertisement itself, (17) and the library of 'the late Mr Murdock, consisting of 1000 volumes of Books by the first authors, most of which are beautifully bound'. (18) Death and consignments continued to feed the market.
The first Melbourne sale was--most appropriately--Cottrell's offering on 5 June 1839 of the furniture and library of 'the late John Batman, Esq'. Of the books we learn only that there were 'Works of the first Authors, and in splendid bindings'. (19) Six months later the country property of the late Hugh Nevin included 'Two vols. Chambers's Journal one pair pocket bibles Two vols Smith's Moral Sentiments eighteen numbers Pickwick Papers' (20)--an interesting settler's survival kit.
Were things essentially different by the end of the century? December 1900 was not particularly productive in Sydney. Could this have been because of the strength of the antiquarian and second-hand trade? A much bigger sample is needed. However, there was the important John Rae sale on 30 November, (21) with a catalogue recorded as Ferguson 14682 from the Mitchell Library copy. A bankrupt's sale in Burwood on 21 December yielded furniture, paintings and 'RARE and OLD AUSTRALIAN BOOKS' with titles by J. D. Lang, Denison, Sidney, Blair and others. (22) The pattern is familiar enough.
In Hobart books were still included as miscellaneous lots. On 18 December 1900 Burn and Son sold some unnamed books along with scientific instruments and then, among furniture and effects, 'Bound Volumes of "Hobart Gazette", "Australasian", "Home News", "European Mail", etc. etc.' (23) A fortnight earlier G. S. Crouch announced, for the special attention of 'Librarians, Antiquarians, Shopkeepers, Orchardists, and Others', complete files of the Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald, Mercury, Australasian, Tribune 'and others for the last 50 years'. (24) One is reminded that T. M. Hocken found Tasmania a fruitful source for the remarkable and partly unique collection of Australian newspapers he formed in Dunedin.
It is possible, but not explicitly stated, that D. W. Melvin of Adelaide's Central Auction Mart included some books, as he often did, on 27 December 1900 in his 'LAST SALE OF THE YEAR AND CENTURY'. (25) Two days before, as a portent of a new era, a certain Peter Dawson sang as a soloist in The Messiah at the Adelaide Town Hall. Certainly, earlier in December, books appeared as incidental components in other sales. However, the only offering of any substance was on 7 December when Theodore Bruce dealt with the property of the Rev J. T. Robertson, MA, 'who is leaving the Colony', and handled 'about 200 volumes of Books': 'Catalogues can be obtained at the Town Hall'. (26)
The auction scene was relatively quiet in Melbourne, too, during December 1900. Beauchamp Brothers advertised a 'Very fine collection ILLUSTRATED WORKS, NOVELS &c' alongside many other items and added the note 'Catalogues ready early'. (27) The last sale of the century was a surprise and a window onto an often inaccessible sphere of book distribution:
SALE by AUCTION of NAUMANN'S CIRCULATING TRAVELLING LIBRARY, COMPRISING 1600 VOLUMES, 1600, BEST MODERN FICTION, ALL THE BEST STANDARD AUTHORS, ALL THE BEST-KNOWN MODERN WRITERS, ALL WELL BOUND, and in GOOD CONDITION, TRAYS, CATALOGUES, &C. (28)
Would that just one of Naumann's own catalogues had survived! Most of the circulating library catalogues we have are, curiously, from the first half of the century and tell us more about the carriage trade attending--or sending servants to--fixed premises than about the more plebeian customers of itinerant lenders. (29)
Between tentative beginnings at various times in the different settlements and the urban strength of Australia on the eve of Federation, the auction market displayed many of the tendencies and contradictions of the society, especially when catalogues backed up the newspaper lists and puffs. Private libraries were sold because of death, insolvency or departure, but businesses and institutional libraries also failed or disbanded, thus leaving more or less eloquent traces. Simply reading Elizabeth Webby's lists gives a good idea of this turmoil in growth before the gold rushes. From the 1850s on the record is richer and more complex again. A few examples--mostly, but not exclusively, Victorian--will suggest some of the things that can be learnt.
Take consignments. We have relatively few surviving printed lists of banal and crudely prepared invoices, unlike the libraries of Wellington, New Zealand. If our institutions ever received them, they treated them as quite consumable and discardable ephemera. On the other hand, the much more elaborate catalogues sent out by Edward Lumley have been better preserved. They went to capital cities, but also to places like Port Fairy and Launceston, essentially in the 1840s. The cognoscenti of northern Tasmania may well have paid close attention to Lumley's sales. The same auctioneers, Underwood & Eddie, were able to sell among nearly 500 lots in 1848 a first edition--two folio volumes--of Johnson's Dictionary: 'Dr Parr's copy'. (30) Where is it now? The only extant Melbourne catalogue of a Lumley consignment has a caption title and not a title page. (31) It was, as usual, far more than a gathering of cheap recent remainders. Lumley was also sending second-hand and antiquarian books of some value to his correspondent agents and auctioneers, and Melbourne in 1856 did exceptionally well.
Was Lumley aware of the take-off of Melbourne after the gold rush? In the 1860s when its population had climbed above Sydney's, it established itself as what it remained until the end of the century--in the words of an internal circular of Richard Bentley and Sons in 1885 (32)--the 'Special Australian distributing centre' of the British trade. Critical in this was the location of the headquarters of George Robertson and Company, the major wholesaler-importer in the Australian colonies. Auction advertisements show the extent of Robertson's periodic sales confined to members of the retail trade. Tens of thousands of books in multiple copies were distributed in this way. Yet I know of only one catalogue that has survived--in the National Library of Australia by courtesy of E. A. Petherick--and that from quite early, 19 March 1862.
The early death of Henry Tolman Dwight in 187133 brought the stock of this publisher and leader of Melbourne's second-hand booksellers onto the market. The main sale began on 28 August 1872 and lasted 14 days, a figure not reached before or since in this country. Even so, there had to be a supplementary sale on 4 November of the same year. The Mitchell Library's copy of the former is annotated with prices. That both give a privileged view of the operations of a large shop--which itself issued many catalogues--goes without saying. In the absence of inventories for most of Dwight's contemporaries and competitors this is particularly valuable.
Libraries came to be sold in Melbourne from other colonies in at least one case: that of Sir Charles Nicholson. (34) The 1861 advertisement tells a story that no catalogue can confirm for the moment. However, the archives of Melbourne institutions--the Public Library, the Parliament, the Supreme Court--tell us that much was bought in May 1861 and safely housed well away from Sydney. Without a doubt it was the most important private sale in the country before the 1880s. The lawyer and politician John Macgregor, who had emigrated from Scotland as a 12-year-old in 1840 and lived in Victoria ever since, amassed 10,000 volumes from his base in East Melbourne. These were auctioned in 1884 in what was probably the grandest sale of the period. (35)
What needs to be added immediately is that some libraries of comparable or greater importance, especially as concerns Australiana, were not dispersed at all by auction or in any other way. Melbourne has done less well from legacies and gifts than Sydney or even Adelaide, as the names of David Scott Mitchell, William Dixson, N. D. Stenhouse, Samuel Way and even Charles Nicholson show. It is true that Mitchell sold his unwanted and unneeded law library, and that--contrary to what I have wrongly claimed in the past--there was a catalogue of what was submitted to public competition on 8 July 1869.
Transfer to an institutional library, even under strict conditions designed to preserve the integrity of the original collection, represents a break of a kind. There were or are books that remained in situ for many decades after the deaths of their first owners. It will suffice to mention the Macarthurs, (36) the Winter-Cookes of Murndal, the Archers of Woolmers and the Berry-Wollstonecraft collection at Coolangatta on the Shoalhaven. The last-named was sold off in 1930, (37) and some fragments--reflecting among other things Alexander Berry's studies in Scotland at the end of the 18th century--recently appeared in an auction room in suburban Melbourne.
Some libraries came to Australia because of their owners' desire to enrich the cultural holdings of their new home. The sad business of William Story, who went first to Adelaide at the end of the 18508 then moved on to Melbourne, eventually bringing out the imposing remnants of a library already partly dispersed in Shrewsbury and Hull, is perhaps an object lesson. Some of us are reluctant to be improved. At all events, after piecemeal selling off to Melbourne institutions, Story was left with 3000 volumes that went to auction after his death in 1870.The far from brilliantly executed catalogue has survived, and so have many of the volumes, discoverable in the trade and now bringing individually as much as the whole collection realised 139 years ago. (38)
Fortunately there have been other escapes from the neglect and the indifference that destroy so many of these minor monuments. The Argus advertisement tells us both that Charles Gavan Duffy sold off his library on 19 November 1864 prior to an overseas trip and that there was a catalogue of it. A fortnight ago the catalogue resurfaced in the Tange Collection sale at Australian Book Auctions. It was part of a Sammelband formed by Gavan Duffy himself around his Irish-Australian concerns. Keenly sought after, it went to a private buyer for a very high price. As luck would have it, I was able to walk around to the viewing from my house and to take copious notes. The phrase 'A collection unequalled in Australia of rare books and rare editions' was obviously penned by somebody who had not been to the Nicholson sale ... or indeed to many others. Details will have to wait for another occasion.
There is much whose disappearance we have to regret. Apart from the Nicholson sale in May 1861, we are missing the catalogues of Sir Redmond Barry's dispersal in March 1881 (39) and of Sir Archibald Michie's residual estate in June 1899. On the other hand when Michie sold 3000 volumes on 20 and 21 June 1873, before going to London as Victoria's Agent-General, someone managed to preserve the printed record for the State Library. (40)
Let us rejoice then in what has been saved: the priced catalogue of the Reverend James Maughan's estate in Adelaide on 16 May 1871, the list of theatrical books sold by James Smith masquerading as 'a gentleman retiring from the profession' in July 1866, (41) and the wreck of the future Sir Terence Murray's fortune, brought to the hammer in Goulburn in 1865. (42)
What one does not find is any indication that Australian residents in the 19th century were collecting massively along the lines of European and North American virtuosi. True, there was Mitchell, but he turned aside to Australia and the Pacific fairly early. Nicholson took up medieval manuscripts and incunables after he left Australia. Sir George Grey--and the relevant collections--belonged to South Africa and to New Zealand.
This was all small beer in the terms of Paris, London and New York or Boston. None the less collecting zeal was in evidence, and the local auction market offered many opportunities to satisfy such appetites over the century.
What image did people have of book auctions in the 19th century? Elizabeth Webby has looked in some detail at the Sydney scene in the 1840s, (43) and this is a pertinent reminder that things did change over time, not least as shops replaced the old pre-eminence of the auction mart. A few remarks and questions are in order as a way of opening up a topic that calls for more research.
Against Godfrey Mundy's impressions at mid-century one can set G. T. W. B. Boyes's diary entry of 2 May 1831 concerning 'a book sale as it is called' conducted by J. Brennand. (44)
These were not places for the fastidious at that time. What we lack is a similar candid impression of how things were done half a century later in the rooms, say, of Gemmell, Tuckett and Co in Melbourne. How much more professional were the practitioners of the later era?
If one looks at catalogues, the performance is generally better in the more specialist houses, but there is nothing that would pass muster in serious book auctions in the 21st century. Caveat emptor, and I imagine no leeway was given for misdescription. Speed was of the essence, as we are reminded by a notice in the South Australian Register of 29 December 1900:
AUCTIONEERS' CATALOGUES and POSTERS Got out on the shortest possible notice. W. K. THOMAS & CO., GENERAL PRINTING OFFICES, GRENFELL STREET, ADELAIDE. (45)
This was jobbing of a fairly elementary kind, and misspellings and absurd truncations were unlikely to be corrected.
More elaborate catalogues were done in less usual circumstances. Lumley, apart from quaint exhortations on title pages and elsewhere, made notes on provenances. But we know that he had people working for him on these tasks, among them Thomas Cooper, the Chartist and future author. A less typical case was that of Benjamin Suggitt Nayler (1796-1875), who clearly wrote himself the catalogue of his sale at Gemmell, Tuckett & Co on 19 March 1870. The self-avowed 'Elocutionist' was a stickler for correct spelling and usage according to his rules and an enemy of sloppy printers. He was also a considerable and contentious figure in the Dutch book trade between 1820 and 1848, a notorious pioneer and promoter of discounting. As a former publisher, he was used to seeing things through the press. (46) Needless to say, few people organising auctions had this kind of expertise.
The greater professionalism of the bookselling trade after 1850 seems to have led institutions like the Melbourne Public Library to have fewer direct dealings with auctioneers and to use intermediaries like Samuel Mullen at major sales in the 1880s. To that extent the situation was closer to what has prevailed in more recent times. That the trade used auctions as a major source of supply is obvious from several Dwight catalogues in the 1860s and from those of his effective successor, Brooks, in the 1870s. Was there ever a ring in operation at this period? The evidence is always hard to gather on these things. Melbourne especially was a large and reasonably competitive market after 1860, but it remained subject to the general state of the economy. Quaritch burnt his fingers badly with his last consignment to Melbourne in 1892: a realisation of less than 100 [pounds sterling] for what had been valued at 400 [pounds sterling].
What is at times surprising is the failure to obtain editorial notice or even puffs for most sales. It is not that the press was totally uninterested in such matters. Indeed the literary notes of the Australasian at the end of the 1880s sometimes comment at length and with more than a semblance of knowledge on big sales in London. The Macgregor sale in 1884 was rare in attracting that sort of attention both in the press and in Mullen's advertising magazine.
The one constant is that catalogues and, even more, advertisements indulge in exaggeration and hyperbole. This goes apparently unchallenged, but the public cannot have been duped by claims that every sale had the rarest and most valuable books on this or that topic. It would be illuminating to discover whether people approached this aspect of the market with resolute and unremitting cynicism. In the end, on this and on many other aspects of people's attitudes, we need more testimonies than seem to be available at present.
Is it disconcerting to admit that a lot more research needs to be done? Individuals will pursue the cases--writers, scientists, professional people, bibliophiles--that affect them more or less directly. Present and future modes of indexing will undoubtedly help them in this. It is the totality or the general trend that is more difficult to grasp. To tackle this task we need a complete index of auction advertisements from 1850 to 1900 and a comprehensive checklist or bibliography of the catalogues known to have survived. Inevitably the job will never be complete--another Gavan Duffy will always be resurrected, but no matter. Then, too, we know that official dogma dislikes basic documentary projects. Taxonomy and bibliography have the paradoxical status of the essential and the despised. If we believe in the necessity of what we want to achieve, then we must volunteer, we must devote our spare time to it rather than wishing vainly and impotently for the intervention of some funding agency or other. In sum, we must seek, certainly, the co-operation of our peers, but we must also be ready to follow in the footsteps of a great achiever: John Ferguson.
(1) W. Kirsop, 'Union catalogues of rare books and prospects for co-ordinated rare book acquisition in Australia', The Australian Library Journal, vol. 12, 1963, pp. 173-77.
(2) The Australian Library Journal, vol. 5, 1956, p. viii.
(3) See K. F. Russell, Catalogue of the historical books in the Library of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne 1979, pp. 2-4.
(4) See in particular Bibliotheca Chemica: a catalogue of the alchemical, chemical and pharmaceutical books in the collection of the late James Young of Kelly and Durris, Glasgow 1906, 2 vols.
(5) See the series of articles by Elaine Hoag and others in Script & Print: Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, vol. 31, no. 1, 2007.
(6) See the review of these publications in Wallace Kirsop, 'The literature on the history of books in Australia: a survey', Reference Australia, no. 7, July 1991, pp. 35-73.
(7) See Sally Graham, Pioneer merchant: the letters of James Graham 1839-54, Melbourne 1985, especially p. 96, and Wallace Kirsop, 'From boom to bust in the "Chicago of the South": the 19th-century Melbourne book trade', La Trobe Library Journal, no. 59, Autumn 1997, pp. 1-14. On Lumley see Wallace Kirsop, Books for colonial readers--the 19th-century Australian experience, Melbourne 1995, pp. 39-58, 88-92.
(8) Wallace Kirsop, 'Bernard Quaritch's Wellington consignment sale, 1893', The Turnbull Library Record, vol. 14, no. 1, May 1981, pp. 13-22.
(9) For an overview of the possibilities, see T. A. Darragh, 'A directory of engravers and lithographers working in Victoria in the 19th century', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 19, 1995, pp. 231-40.
(10) 'A checklist of early Australian booksellers' and auctioneers' catalogues and advertisements: 1800-1849', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 3, 1978, pp. 123-48, vol. 4, 1979, pp. 33-61, 95-150.
(11) John Pascoe Fawkner's library: facsimile of the sale catalogue of 1868, with an introductory essay by Wallace Kirsop, Melbourne 1985.
(12) See List of catalogues of English book sales 1676-1900 now in the British Museum, London 1915; George L. McKay, American book auction catalogues 1713-1934: a union list, New York 1937 (reprinted Detroit 1967, with the 1946 and 1948 supplements); A. N. L. Munby and Lenore Coral, British book sale catalogues 1676-1800: a union list, London 1977; Robert B. Winans, A descriptive checklist of book catalogues separately printed in America 1693-1800, Worcester 1981.
(13) Basket, bag and trolley: a history of shopping in Australia, Melbourne 1994.
(14) See 'Prayer-books, politics and the book trade: a reading of the Irish in New South Wales, 1830-1900', forthcoming in the series 'Immigrant communities of readers and writers in the 19th and 20th centuries' published by the Centre for the Book, Monash University.
(15) South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 20 January 1838, p. c.
(16) South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 21 July 1838, p. 2d.
(17) South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 8 June 1839, p. 5c.
(18) The South Australian Register, 21 September 1839, p. 2a.
(19) The Port Phillip Patriot, and Melbourne Advertiser, 27 May 1839, p. b.
(20) Port Phillip Patriot, 9 December 1839, p. a-b.
(21) The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1900, p. 2e.
(22) The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1900, p. 19a.
(23) The Mercury, 18 December 1900, p. 4g.
(24) The Mercury, 5 December 1900, p. 4g.
(25) South Australian Register, 25 December 1900, p. 8a.
(26) South Australian Register, 6 December 1900, p. 8a.
(27) Argus, 14 December 1900, p. 2b.
(28) Argus, 21 December 1900, p. 2b.
(29) See Wallace Kirsop, 'Writing a history of 19th-century commercial circulating libraries: problems and possibilities', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 27, nos 3 & 4, pp. 71-82.
(30) Lot 268, page 17, in the catalogue now held by the State Library of Tasmania.
(31) From the copy in the State Library of Victoria.
(32) Kindly communicated by the University of Illinois Library at Champaign-Urbana in 1974.
(33) See the invaluable documentary volume by Ian F. McLaren, Henry Tolman Dwight: bookseller and publisher, Melbourne 1989.
(34) On Nicholson's libraries see Wallace Kirsop, 'Sir Charles Nicholson and his book collections', The Australian Library Journal, vol. 56, 2007, pp. 418-27.
(35) See Wallace Kirsop, '"The finest private library in Australia": John Macgregor's collection', The La Trobe Journal, no. 69, Autumn 2002, pp. 30-38.
(36) See R. Ian Jack, 'An Australian country-house library: the Macarthurs of Camden Park', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 3, 1977, pp. 49-54.
(37) I am grateful to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales for providing me with a photocopy of the typescript catalogue in their possession.
(38) See W. Kirsop, Books for colonial readers, pp. 17-37, 83-88.
(39) See Wallace Kirsop, 'In search of Redmond Barry's private library', La Trobe Library Journal, no. 26, October 1980, pp. 25-33.
(40) See Wallace Kirsop, 'Australian lawyers and their libraries in the 19th century', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 18, 1994, pp. 44-52.
(41) See Wallace Kirsop, 'A theatrical library in 19th-century Melbourne and its dispersal: solving a puzzle', La Trobe Library Journal, no. 37, 1986, pp. 1-8. On Smith's other collections see Lurline Stuart, 'James Smith's private library', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 6, 1982, pp. 23-39.
(42) Material kindly provided by the National Library of Australia. A facsimile of the catalogue is in preparation and will be published under the title From Yarralumla to the sale room: Terence Murray's library, in 2009.
(43) 'Sydney auction sales in the 1840s', Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 5, 1981, pp. 17-28.
(44) The diaries and letters of G. T. W. B. Boyes, vol. 1: 1820-1832, edited by Peter Chapman, Melbourne 1985, pp. 428-29.
(45) Chapman, p. 12a.
(46) See Wallace Kirsop, 'Life before and after bookselling: the curious career of Benjamin Suggitt Nayler', The La Trobe Journal, no. 78, Spring 2006, pp. 11-37.
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|Title Annotation:||John Alexander Ferguson|
|Publication:||Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2009|
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