The Stuart-era engraving proved a worthy front cover illustration to the catalogue of the personal collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey selling at Dominic Winter for £18,500 (plus premium).
Printed c.1700, the 11 x 8in (28 x 20cm) engraving titled The Compleat Auctioner depicts a bespectacled gent standing behind his wares, with two ladies and two gentlemen beside him. A notice is pinned to a tree announcing
‘A Choice Collection of Books being the Library of the late famous Unborn Doctor, are to be put to Sale this Day… at Mr L-GS Auction in the North West Corner of Middle Moorfields’. Below the image are eight lines of verse and the name of the London engraver and print-seller Sutton Nicholls (1668-1729).
Book auctions were first popular in the Low Countries (as early as 1596 the printer Lodewijk Elzevier was granted permission to hold them in The Hague) but the earliest surviving English catalogue is much later: conducted at the home of the clergyman Lazarus Seaman in 1676.
Although the sale was conducted ‘Dutch’ style – with the price starting high and falling incrementally until a bidder chose to claim the merchandise – it was the more familiar ascending auction that quickly gained favour.
Closer examination of the books on The Compleat Auctioner’s table reveals many bawdy titles of the Restoration era, such as School of Venus, Play of Sodom and Poems by the Earl of Rochester alongside standard medical works of the period (Aristotle’s Masterpiece among them), and other titles including Don Quixot (sic) and Heylins Cos[mography].
The print can be dated with some accuracy. The former owner of the library was a notorious London quack who – claiming to be ‘an Eminent Doctor of Physick newly come out of Poland’ – went by the name of the Unborn Doctor, Seventh Son of the Seventh Son.
In fact, as the Old Bailey heard on December 13, 1699, John Payden was a bigamist and a fraud whose additional aliases included Thomas Lock and Savando Ponteau. It was Payden’s public hanging at Moorfields that led to the sale by The Compleat Auctioner.
Only a handful of examples of the print are recorded, with this example (with two short closedtears to the margins, now repaired) the first listed in auction records. It is not known when Orskey, a renowned dealer who died last December aged 93, had acquired it.
Dominic Winter specialist Chris Albury admitted that many gavel-wielding bibliophiles might have been tempted by the estimate of £500-800 at the auction on June 26.
However, after a bidding battle won by the New York dealer Justin Schiller, he said the South Cerney saleroom itself will be content with a decent facsimile.