Who's Who

The Birth of the Book Auction

The late 17th century saw the arrival of a new way of buying and selling books. Amy Bowles explores the impact of the book auction on those with a commercial and scholarly interest in the printed word.

In 1679, three years after the first recorded book auction was held in England, an Anglican preacher Edward Stillingfleet was embroiled in a series of printed refutations and counter-refutations with a Catholic priest Thomas Godden. The debate concerned Stillingfleet’s ‘charges against the Church of Rome’ and the year saw him respond with a volume entitled Several Conferences Between a Romish Priest, A Fanatick Chaplain, and a Divine of the Church of England. This series of four imagined conversations is set within an early book auction, a newly available social arena that encapsulated intrigue and uncertainty for its early attendees. The characters’ discussion begins when the Priest addresses the Chaplain:

Rom. P: You are well met at this Auction of Books. I have been present at many of them beyond Sea: but I never was at one in England before. How go the prices of Books here.
Fan. Ch: Very dear methinks, by the Books I have bought [...].
R.P: May I know what they are Sir?
F.C: Only some few choice pieces which I have picked out of this great Catalogue.
R.P: Whereabouts are they now in the Catalogue?
F.C: Among the Fathers; But I observe the Church of England men buy them up at any rate [...] yonder sits a Divine of the Church of England, who I suppose, is the person, who bought so many Fathers at the last Auction, as though he had a mind to write against the Papists. 

Stillingfleet, a book collector himself, would have been aware from first-hand experience of the social concerns surrounding early auctions. This introductory exchange, employed as a frame for the men’s doctrinal debate, combines the ostensibly religious subject of the treatise with questions concerning the emergence of a new method of book selling: the auction. Developing in the late 17th century, the book auction touches on a number of themes, from the developing roles of audiences and auctioneers to the auction’s impact on the expanding book trade, its conflicts with existing authorities, worries regarding potentially duplicitous auctioneers, price-setting and its effects upon established scholarship and collectors.

Dutch bookshop, mid-17th century illustration by Dirck de Bray and Salomon de Bray. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Dutch bookshop, mid-17th century illustration by Dirck de Bray and Salomon de Bray. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Book auctions were first popularised in the Low Countries, where it is documented that in 1596 Lodewijk Elzevier was granted permission to hold them in The Hague. There is evidence of book auctions taking place as early as 1536 in the town of Louvain, but the first printed sale catalogues are widely regarded to have appeared at the Elzevier auctions. These events were conducted in public buildings, such as the Great Hall of the Binnenhof, and private homes including that of the Elzevier family. The practice soon spread to Leiden and Amsterdam. This rise in popularity has been attributed to a combination of factors: high literacy rates, limited public libraries, a lack of attachment to family libraries and increased book production. 

The Dutch enthusiasm for book auctions reached England when Dr Joseph Hill, a minister who had previously lived in Holland, suggested the method to the bookseller William Cooper. In England an earlier method of auction, called ‘mineing’, had existed in which the price called out descended until a buyer cried ‘mine!’. Auctions had been used for the sale of other goods and ‘lottery’ events, similar to book auctions, had taken place since 1668. At these contests customers paid a fixed entrance fee in exchange for a random book allegedly ‘worth near double his Money, and its not 3 to one but he gets a lot worth 3, 5, or 10 times as much’. Nevertheless, Cooper’s preface to the catalogue of the first English book auction, a sale of the contents of clerygyman Lazarus Seaman’s library, in London in 1676, refers to the method as a wholly European practice:

It hath not been usual here in England to make Sale of BOOKS by way of Auction or Who will give most for them; but it having been practised in other Contreys to the Advantage both of Buyers and Sellers; it was therefore conceived (for the encouragement of learning), to publish the Sale of these Books this like manner of way.

After this first sale, similar types of auctions, defined as a contest of rising bids or ‘who will give most’, rapidly became popular across the city. Between 1676 and 1700 over a hundred were held, a figure that amounted to the sale of ‘some 350,000 works, realising a round sum of about £250,000’, according to John Lawler, author of Book Auctions in the 17th Century (1906). Terms associated with auctions began to enter the vernacular. Before 1676 the term ‘auctior’, linked to ‘authour’, meant only ‘an increaser’. Twenty years later ‘auction’ was recorded in its modern sense: ‘a Publick, or open Sale of Goods, in which the highest Bidder is the Buyer’. 

Book auctions typically took place in hired, public spaces such as coffee houses, although in the case of private library sales, such as Seaman’s, they were often held at a deceased owner’s home itself. Later in the century, dedicated spaces, such as Rolls’s Auction House and Millington’s ‘Vendu’, were established. Commonly held between 9am and noon, with a two hour interval and resuming from 2pm until 6pm, the timings of book auctions were significant. It has been claimed that unusually timed auctions were reserved for private trade sales, but the public auctioneers Cooper and Millington, who both began as booksellers in the same area of Little Britain in the City of London, also experimented with their sale times. Cooper began one sale at 8am, but later returned to the customary hour of 9am, while in 1683 Millington advertised a sale, which began at 10am, with a three hour break at 12pm, and a final close at the late hour of 7pm. These fluctuating times may have reflected the number of lots that the auctioneers were required to sell in a day. Lawler estimates Cooper’s average to be 600 lots in seven hours, a daily time scale that may have been extended for a book collection exceeding that number. Although the social atmosphere of book auctions is less frequently recorded, Richard Ames described an auction in 1693 as a ‘distraction’, which resembled ‘a Wake or a Fair’. However, this boisterous environment did not seem to foreclose the social potential for discussion and dialogue suggested by Stillingfleet’s Conferences, in which religious debates are described as taking place in the midst of an auction.

Book auctions were held in public spaces, such as this coffee and tea house (German engraving, second half of 17th century). Bridgeman ImagesThe auctioneer was required to conform to expectations regarding his sales patter; the historian Giles Mandelbrote writes of a 1727 auction in which the seller ‘became dissatisfied with his first auctioneer, Charles Davis, complaining of his slowness and “garbling of the books”; he replaced him with Thomas Ballard’. An auctioneer’s narration could equally be a draw for customers. In 1689 John Evelyn’s daughter Susanna wrote to her mother that she had repeatedly returned to Millington’s art sales because ‘there can be no better diversion than to hear the man talk over every picture’. Millington’s patter set him apart from his competitors; the auctioneer John Dunton wrote of ‘the famous Millington’ that ‘there was usually as much Comedy in his “Once, twice, thrice” as in a modern Play’. 

In addition to this obligation to maintain an engaging commentary during the auction, a Millington sale accounts book of 1681 shows that auctioneers were required to compile the auction catalogue and organise aspects such as the ‘binding & glewing [of] severall bookes’, a ‘Cart and porter to load the bookes’, and ‘a box to the Auction house and then back’, receiving an overall commission of 3 shillings and 6 pence for every pound sold. Despite their responsibility to deliver a clear and entertaining sales patter, early auctioneers, like Millington and Cooper, were not necessarily required to possess any specialist knowledge of their goods. Dunton famously had an aversion to learning and originally fled from his bookselling apprenticeship, while Millington in 1687 promised an auction full of early printed books from ‘the Original of Printing’, but gives several misdated examples, which are among the latest in the catalogue. On the other hand, an excessive interest in the books being sold could also be undesirable. The auctioneer Samuel Paterson’s weakness for reading the volumes which he was meant to be cataloguing allegedly resulted in catalogues being unfinished or late to the sales.

Despite this, auctioneers became important figures in the book trade, as increasing numbers of booksellers began to conduct auctions and collaborations became common. Millington and Cooper collaborated on the auctions of the libraries of Daniel Roberts in 1683 and Richard Davis in 1686. However, disputes also arose between auctioneers. In 1693 Dunton complained of a misunderstanding over an auction room he had hired in Dublin:

I fully designed that this Third Auction should have been sold at Dick’s Coffee-house in Skinner-row; for I had agreed with Dick for his back-room as long as my Sale lasted; [...] but one Patrick Campbell designing himself to keep an Auction of Books there, and thinking that the Room where Gentlemen had found such fair usage in my Auction would give a reputation to his, takes it over my head and easy Dick even lets the room to Patrick, at the time when it was actually mine, without being so fair as to cry ‘Ten Shillings Once, Ten Shillings Twice’.

Conflicts such as these would have been common in the late 17th century, as the printing and bookselling industry became less regulated and commonly accepted rules for the book trade had not yet been extended to the new business of auctions. Previously, the King’s Printer had imposed fierce regulations on booksellers and the industry had grown sluggish.The 16th century saw books classified by binding quality, with maximum prices limited accordingly, while in the early 17th century it was reported that booksellers from the Low Countries, hoping to sell their stock in England, instead ‘carried them back into Holland’, where the market proved more lucrative. However, the growth of auctions contributed to a surge in the book trade, as auctions served as effective channels for the sale and distribution of previously static stock. The sudden unregulated spread of book auctions also led to conflicts with existing authorities. A Star Chamber decree of 1637 had previously accounted it unlawful for: 

Any person or persons whatsoever, not having been trade of a Book-seller, Printer, or Book-binder, to within the cite or suburbs of London, or in any other Corporation, Market-towne, or elsewhere, receive, take or buy, to barter, sell againe, change or do away any Bibles, Testaments, Psalm-books, Primers, Abcees, Almanackes, or other booke or books whatsoever.

Coloured engraving of a printing press from the Gottfried Historical Chronicle, Frankfurt, 1619Although William Cooper had completed an eight-year apprenticeship with the stationer William Wells, Millington was officially a haberdasher and his shift to bookselling was ‘to the chagrin of the Stationer’s Company’. He would have been one of the targets of the Company’s 1684 petition, signed by 96 of its members, which included the complaint:

Wee doe likewise tender to yor consideration the excessive losse and prejudice which the whole Company of Booksellers (except some few persons) have laine under and doe now suffer by the many and frequent Auctions of Bookes which are dayly and have beene for some yeares last past exposed to sale that way.

The rise in book auctions was also met with hostility by the Common Cryer, or ‘Outroper’, who was responsible for public auctions arising from legal actions and bankruptcies. Cooper and Millington’s auctions of deceased mens’ libraries entirely infringed upon his official function. In 1689 the Outroper Thomas Puckle complained ‘against Mr Millington for making publick sales of bookes [and] Pictures within this City’. However, the complaint does not seem to have impeded Millington’s trade. Less than a month later  he advertised another sale and continued to auction both books and pictures until his death in 1703.

Though this lack of regulation benefited sales it also led to disputes, such as that between John Dunton and Patrick Campbell, and ultimately drove the trade to monitor itself, with auctioneers undertaking their own unofficial recordings. Cooper published a running list of libraries whose contents had been sold at auction, noting the date and original owner, while the emerging problem of audience members who bid for books but did not pay led to the establishment of a common ‘account of names’, listing those who ‘have hitherto neglected to pay for their own’. Yet it was not only buyers that needed monitoring. The honesty of the auctioneer also required authentication, as this ‘Attestation’ signed by four of Dunton’s associates suggests:

That being all of us present at Mr John Dunton’s Three Auctions in Dublin, and having seen the management thereof every day, we do attest that as all was carried on and managed with the greatest candour and sincerity imaginable by Mr Dunton, [...] that Mr Dunton’s Demeanour during his whole Auctions, has been such as has given content to all the gentlemen there; for whereas in other auctions it is common to have Setters to raise the value of the books, in Mr Dunton’s Auctions we are sure there were none from the beginning to the end.

The duplicitous use of ‘setters’ was among several accusations levelled against auctioneers. The notion of an auction embraced the assumption that price of goods was determined only by the bidders. It, therefore, sidestepped any bookselling regulations concerning maximum prices. Despite this, price interference by auctioneers through tactics such as setting led to literary representations of auctioneers as dishonest. Edward Ward’s poem, ‘The humours of a coffee-house’, refers to an auctioneer who, once ‘The Hammer’s down’, ‘has you in a trice’, while Thomas Brown’s 1703 elegy to Millington himself remembers the book auctioneer’s ability to ‘sell ’em by his Art for twice their worth’. Millington was widely known to be among the less honest of his trade, a perception that Thomas Hearne corroborated when he wrote that Millington, though

 ... certainly the best Auctioneer in the World, was at the same time very impudent & saucy, yet he was a rascal, & could not at the end of Auctions be brought to give an Account to the Persons that employ’d him, so that by that means he allow’d wt he pleased, & no more, & kept a great Number of Books that were not sold to himself.

Nevertheless, the practice of exaggerating the significance of cheaper books and withholding those that were more valuable was widespread. A 1681 advertisement of Cooper’s was attacked by a rival bookseller for suggesting that an upcoming sale would auction the entire remaining library of William Gataker, when in fact ‘the books on offer were only a fragment’ and worth only ‘about fifty pounds’. Deceptive advertising surrounded the auctions of libraries. The frontispiece to Abel Roper’s 1680 auction catalogue (pictured left) promises that the libraries of ‘two Eminent and Learned Men Deceased; are to be Exposed to Sale’. However, Cooper’s list of library sales states that this auction was no more than bookseller Roper’s own stock, suggesting that the claim of previous illustrious ownership simply motivated more buyers to bid, as the stock appeared to be newly available and of a unique provenance.

The spread of auctions did much for existing communities of book collectors, who had previously acquired works slowly through contacting booksellers or borrowing from the shelves of friends. Auctions brought them into contact with a wider range of collectors and enthusiasts and provided opportunities for the easy acquisition of specific books. Consequently, auctions became perceived as ‘convenient Marts of learning’, where auctioneers such as John Dunton did ‘more service to Learning by his auctions than any one single man these hundred years’, in the words of Jacob Hooke, writing in 1703. This access to information and scholarship, in conjunction with the possibility to interact in proximity with other collectors, characterised the early modern auction for its attendees. New scholarly and social information became increasingly available both via the books on offer and the auction rooms in which they were discussed, extolled, contested and acquired.

 The new method of selling books ‘by way of Out-cry’ allowed for the emergence of fresh dialogue surrounding the sale of books and about the books themselves. Unlike the previously individual pursuits of book buying and selling, the auction presented a democratic and concerted method for the dispersal of books and dissemination of knowledge. It resulted in collectively-reached judgements on the value and significance of discourse, as revealed by Stillingfleet, Godden and the characters through which they spoke. As Stillingfleet wrote: 

As to the manner of writing here used, viz. by way of Dialogue, it is that which his Adversary led him to; and possibly, where the decency of it is well observed, it may make Controversie go down more pleasantly than otherwise it would. For there appears more life and vigour in a Discourse carried on by several persons of different humours and opinions, than in one continued deduction of Reason.

Amy Bowles is a PhD student studying early modern scribes and their writing practices.

The Birth of the Book Auction

Recent stories