April 24

On this day in 1911,the “greatest library ever assembled by an American” was auctioned in the first of the nine sessions which witnessed the disposal of 14,996 books, realizing the sum of $1,932,000, and making it by long odds the most important book auction ever held.

The library had originally been gathered by Robert Hoe III of the third generation of the great family of printing press manufacturers which had revolutionized the development of rotary presses. Hoe was no mere rich and ambitious collector of books but was a discriminating critic of fine printing. He was a founding member of the Grolier Club and its first president. In fact it was in his home that the group had originally met. Robert Hoe put together a magnificent library representing the great ages of the printer’s art, and including examples of the work of every outstanding historic printer.

Had the auctioneer been a circus barker he would no doubt have burst out with “Not one! But two!” when the greatest of all printed books, the 42-line Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg, was brought under the hammer. Never again was there to be such an event. It is extremely doubtful that even a single Gutenberg Bible will again come up for sale at auction. One copy, on vellum, was sold that night to Henry Huntington through his agent, George D. Smith, for $50,000—the largest amount up to that time ever paid for a single book. The second bible, on paper, was knocked down to Bernard Quaritch, the London bookseller, whose father had sold Hoe both copies for just $27,500. That particular copy is now at Harvard University.

Present at the auction was the rising young bookseller, A.S.W. Rosenbach of Philadelphia. He had already acquired some wealthy clients, but he found himself outclassed and outbid by such auction room titans as the aforementioned Smith, who at this one auction raised Huntington, the California millionaire, to eminence as the premier American book collector. J. Pierpont Morgan was represented by Belle da Costa Greene, and Walter Hill of Chicago bid for Mrs. McCormick, the daughter of John D. Rockefeller. Rosenbach’s biographer records that, ‘Thousand dollar bids were piled up like Ossa on Pelion.”

Among the books which found new shelves were the rare first printing of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur which went for $42,800 to Morgan, the only known copy of a vellum Helyas Knight of the Swanne, printed by Caxton’s apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde, which Mrs. McCormick secured for $21,000. And so the fabulous sale continued, building the auction into a never-to-be-forgotten legend, its like perhaps not to be witnessed again.

It was Robert Hoe’s wish that his books be put up for sale rather than to be donated to an institutional library. “If the great collections of the past had not been sold,” he had said, “where would I have found my books?”