Collectors expected to spend €1.8m at Jesuit book sale

Rare books from Milltown library include works by Shakespeare and Swift

Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Jesuit Library sale at Sotheby’s auction

Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Jesuit Library sale at Sotheby’s auction

 

A historic library of more than 1,000 books and manuscripts owned by the Jesuit Order in Ireland will come under the hammer at Sotheby’s of London on Wednesday. The international auction house says the collection, which includes Shakespeare Folios, some of the earliest books ever printed and a first edition of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, is “one of the most important collections of its kind”. The auction is expected to raise at least €1.8 million.

The library was assembled by the Cork-born judge and noted book collector, William O’Brien. He was a close personal friend of Sir Edward Sullivan, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, one of whose sons, John, became a Jesuit priest. O’Brien, who never married and had no children, bequeathed his library to the Milltown Park community in Dublin on account of the Sullivan family’s connection with the Jesuit Order.

A first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, at Sotheby’s auction
A first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, at Sotheby’s auction

Fr John Sullivan is an unlikely character to find at the heart of this story of extremely valuable literary objects. Having studied theology at Milltown, he was ordained a priest in 1907 and lived a frugal life, spending much of his time at prayer and visiting the sick. Last month he was beatified at an ecumenical service in St Francis Xavier’s church on Gardiner Street in Dublin – the first step on the road to sainthood.

The room at Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, where he spent most of his working life, was the opposite of a “big house” library: “He had as his furniture a hard-wood chair, a broken pitcher, a kneeler, some books, a holy water font, his crucifix from which he was inseparable, a little table, and a bed, even with few covers when the weather was colder.”

O’Brien’s books have been at Milltown Park since the judge’s death in 1899. Milltown’s charitable status does not allow for outright donations of its property so works from the trust’s collection can be loaned or sold at market value, but not donated.

Nuremberg Chronicles, the most elaborate coffee-table book of its day. Dating from 1493, at Sotheby’s auction
Nuremberg Chronicles, the most elaborate coffee-table book of its day. Dating from 1493, at Sotheby’s auction

A spokesperson for the Jesuits in Ireland said of the sale: “We are only too aware of the scholarly importance and interest of the library, but the reality is that the collection is of wider relevance than it can be to our community, and was rarely consulted by outside students or scholars while in our custody. For some time now we have had concerns regarding the preservation of these precious things, many of which are of such an age that they require specialist care and conservation.

“The dispersal of the O’Brien collection and the donation of books to the National Library in Ireland will now allow for these precious books to be properly cared for and appreciated.” According to the spokesperson proceeds from the sale will be put towards the upkeep of churches, the care of invalid priests, addressing poverty, and religious education.

Nuremberg Chronicles, the most elaborate coffee-table book of its day. Dating from 1493, at Sotheby’s auction
Nuremberg Chronicles, the most elaborate coffee-table book of its day. Dating from 1493, at Sotheby’s auction

Long-term loan

Last last year the Jesuits contacted the National Library of Ireland to enable it to review the collection. As a result, a number of books and manuscripts of Irish interest were given on “long-term loan” to the library. They include a rare manuscript on the kingdom of Ireland by Peter Lombard, the Archbishop of Armagh who died in 1625, and several books printed before 1500, including books by Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, some of which are copies unique to Ireland.

Other books of Irish interest were given to De Burca Rare Books Ireland to sell here. Export licences for the Sotheby’s sale were granted by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

O’Brien acquired many of the books in his collection from the sale of Sir Edward Sullivan’s library at Sotheby’s in 1890. One of these is Lot 205, Justinianus’s Institutiones, a manual of Roman law produced in Rome in 1473 and one of only seven recorded copies; others are held in the Vatican and British Library collections. O’Brien paid £2 for the book. It carries a guide price of €11,800- €17,700.

Some of the highest prices in the sale may be achieved by three editions of Shakespeare’s plays: a second folio edition, from 1632 (Lot 314, €59,000 -€94,000), a third folio, from 1664 (Lot 315, €35,400- €59,000) and a fourth folio from 1685 (Lot 316, €47,200-€71,000). Lot 30, a first edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna, published in 1620 and purchased by O’Brien in 1890 for three pounds eight shillings, carries an estimate of €35,400-€59,000.

Martyrs and monsters

One of the earliest printed books in the sale is the Nuremberg Chronicles, the most elaborate coffee-table book of its day. Dating from 1493 and written by the Nuremberg doctor Hartmann Schedel, it is filled with hundreds of woodcut illustrations showing kings, queens, saints, martyrs and monsters as well as some of the earliest printed representations of town and cities – most of which were entirely made up (Lot 306, €29,500-€47,200). There is also a first printed copy of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Lot 341, €23,600-€36,400). Published before 1463 in Strasbourg, it was probably the first printed book produced outside of Mainz, where Johannes Gutenburg had pioneered the printing press.

A first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will also come under the hammer (Lot 335). Printed in London in 1726, it became an instant classic: the first print run sold out in a week, and the novel has never been out of print in 300 years. The famously cantankerous clergyman disowned most versions of the work – including this first edition – declaring it so much altered that “I hardly know mine own work”. It carries an estimate of €17,700-€23,600.

Sotheby’s, London. The Library of William O’Brien: Property of the Milltown Park Charitable Trust. Sale Wednesday, June 7th. Seesothebys.com

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