(This is taken from W. Roberts' The Book-Hunter in London.)
"Facilis descensus Averni"* might well be the motto for any article or chapter dealing with the above comprehensive 'avocations.' Once started on his career, the book-thief may be regarded as entirely lost. At the Middlesex Sessions a few years ago a genius of the name of Terry was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for stealing books. On inquiry it was found that this same person had already been in prison six times, two terms of eighteen months each, one term of five years' penal servitude, and another of seven years, all for stealing books.
Each thief has his own special modus operandi, which he varies according to circumstances. There are those who do it without any adventitious aid, and those who cover their sin with various accessories. First, the ordinary book-thief, who watches his opportunity when the shopkeeper is not looking, and simply slips the book quickly under his coat and departs. This method is plain and simple in execution, but sometimes dangerous in practice. Then there is the man who wears an overcoat, the lining of the pocket of which he has previously removed, so that he can pass his hand right through while apparently only standing still looking on, with his hands quietly in his pocket, possibly with one hand openly touching something, whilst the other is earning his dinner.
An amusing incident was once the experience of a London bookseller. While sitting behind his counter inside the shop, he was amazed one day at seeing a man running at a tremendous rate, and, momentarily slackening his speed to seize a book off the stall, he had disappeared before the astounded bookseller was able to get to the door. And it is remarkable that, though many people were about, no one seems to have noticed the thief take the book, though they saw him running. Another favourite device is to carry a newspaper in the hand, and when no one is looking deposit the paper on a carefully-selected book within the folds; or having an overcoat carried on the arm to quickly hide something under cover of it. This latter method requires, of course, a well-to-do-looking man, and obviously is chiefly confined to the stealers of the higher class of valuable books. It also requires, like every well-managed business, a certain amount of capital, for it is absolutely necessary—in order to lull suspicion—that small purchases should be made from time to time in the hunting-ground that has been chosen for the season.
Then there is the mean man who, having money, is yet lacking in the will to spend it. Such individuals in these days of disguising bad deeds under grand names are euphemistically designated kleptomaniacs. Most London booksellers have had experience of this class. It is a known fact that a literary man whose name is familiar to many readers was expelled from the reading-room of the British Museum for this sort of conduct, stealing small trifling things that could easily have been bought, and mutilating other books by cutting out passages which he was too lazy to transcribe, and too mean, although a well-to-do man, to employ an amanuensis.
'Steal?' quoth ancient Pistol. 'Foh! a fico for the phrase. Convey the wise it call.' Had Pistol lived in these days he would have said, 'Kleptomania the wise it call.' Some years ago there resided in the West End of London a Belgian gentleman well known in literary circles, and a man of good position to boot. He possessed a valuable library, and was a frequent visitor at shops where he could add to his collections. One dealer noticed that, whenever Monsieur Y. called upon him, one or two valuable books mysteriously disappeared, and he was not long before he arrived at the conclusion that his Belgian customer appropriated his wares without attending to the customary, but disagreeable, process of exchanging the coin of the realm for his bargains. Our friend the dealer, an honest but remarkably plain-spoken and fearless individual, made careful notes of all his losses and their prices.
One day he stopped Monsieur Y. just as he was leaving the shop, and remarked that he might as well pay for the little volumes he had stowed away in the pockets of the capacious overcoat he almost invariably wore. Great was the assumed indignation of the Belgian bibliophile, who asserted that he had no books on him but those he had already accounted for. 'Come, come,' said the dealer, 'that won't do; I left you alone in the room upstairs, but I watched you through the door, and saw you pocket the books, of which the price is so much. Unless you pay for them I shall send for a policeman; and whilst I am on the topic you may as well settle for those other books you have taken from my shelves at various times.' Here he produced his list, with the prices all affixed, and a certain small sum added by way of interest. Hereupon Monsieur Y. stormed and raved, swore it was an attempt to extort money from him, and threatened legal proceedings. 'If,' said the dealer, 'you can empty your pockets now without producing any book of mine, except those you have paid for, I will withdraw my claim and apologize, otherwise I shall at once send my man' (whom he then called) 'for a policeman.' Whereupon Monsieur Y. paid the full claim, walked out of the shop, and never entered it again. But the catalogues were regularly sent to him, and as the dealer constantly had books that he required, he ordered what he wanted by post, so that in the long-run the bookseller really lost little or nothing by his boldness. The same bookseller complained that people often ordered his books but neglected to pay for them, whilst intending purchasers who meant to pay ready money, and called at the shop for the books, had to be sent away disconsolate, sometimes after having come long distances to secure the long-wished-for volume. 'But first come, first served, is my motto, and if six orders come for the same book, it goes to the man whose letter or card I first receive.' A sturdy John Bull sort of man this, with a great knowledge of books, who has had to fight a long uphill battle, and is perhaps one of the best-known men in the trade.
An awkward incident for the thief happened once. A bookseller, the proprietor of two or three shops, was in one of them, when a person entered and offered for sale a couple of books. The proprietor recognised one of them as being his property, he having that morning sent it to the other of his shops, from which it had been apparently almost immediately removed. When questioned, the intending vendor pretended to be much insulted, and asserted the book had been in his possession for some considerable time, and even threatened the bookseller, when he insisted on detaining the book, with the police. This was rather unfortunate, for at that moment a constable passing by was called in, and, in spite of a great deal of bluster and many threats, the thief was marched off to the nearest police-station. The other book, it was found, had also been stolen that morning from another shop, and the result was four months' imprisonment.
The remarkable fact is that book-thieves are nearly always well-to-do people; if hunger induced them to steal a book to get a dinner, they would come in the category of ordinary thieves. If they stole books because they wanted to read them, and were unable to pay for them, one might overlook their crime. One of the most remarkable illustrations of the past few years is that in which an ex-lieutenant in the Royal Scots Greys was implicated. The books belonged to a lady who had let her house to the prisoner's father. She left a number of books, which were in three bookcases. They were locked, and contained valuable books. She was informed (so runs the report) that several of the books were missing, and a few weeks after she saw a number of books, including Ruskin's 'Stones of Venice' and 'Modern Painters,' which she identified as her property. The law was put into motion, and the case came into the courts. The value of the two books mentioned she estimated at £60, and the other books at £50. Mr. Reeves, bookseller, then of 196, Strand, deposed that he could identify the prisoner, and on June 21 he purchased five volumes of Ruskin's 'Modern Painters,' and gave a cheque for £16. He understood that the accused had come into possession of them through a death. On that occasion the prisoner asked the witness what he would give for three volumes of 'The Stones of Venice.' Witness offered him £9. On June 28 the prisoner brought the book, and finding it not to be in such good condition, witness offered him £7 10s. This was accepted, and witness handed a cheque to the prisoner for that amount. Witness bought other books from the prisoner for £3 2s. 6d. Mr. Reeves said that he sold 'Modern Painters' for £18, and 'The Stones of Venice' for £8 10s.
Here is another illustration, gleaned from the Greenwich Police Court: A person, forty-six, of ladylike appearance, and no occupation, was charged at Greenwich with stealing a book, valued 4d., from outside the shop of Charles Humphreys, 114, South Street. She was seen to take a book from a stall, place it in a novelette, and walk away. Prosecutor followed, stopped her, and said, 'I've got you now.' She cried out, 'Oh, for God's sake, don't, don't! Let me pay for it.' But he said, 'No, not for £5, as you are an old thief.' At her house he found over a hundred books bearing his private mark, but he could not swear that they had not been bought. Once he bought some books from the prisoner which she had stolen from his shop, but he did not know that when he bought them. Prisoner pleaded guilty to stealing one book, and on her behalf a solicitor produced a certificate from a medical man, stating that she was suffering from general weakness of system, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and evident mental disorder. Those symptoms he attributed to causes which induced the magistrate to deal leniently, and a fine of £5 was imposed.
About a couple of years ago, two maiden sisters, Grace and Blanche ——, were charged at Bow Street with theft. To all appearances they were highly respectable members of the community. Grace was seventy-four; Blanche had only seen sixty summers. They visited Shoolbred's, apparently wanting to buy some Prayer-books and Bibles. They looked at many, but none suited them. They left without purchasing anything, no suspicions being aroused on the part of the attendants. But Detective Butler and Constable 173 D, who had taken great interest in the old ladies' movements, saw Grace hand a Book of Common Prayer, a hymn-book, and ladies' companion to her sister. Shoolbred's manager identified the articles as the property of the firm, but declined to prosecute on account of the old ladies' ages. Grace admitted the theft, but said she did not know what she was doing. A small fine was inflicted.
Even so astute a tradesman as Bernard Quaritch has been victimized by the book-thief. These are his own words: 'A little dark man, of about forty-five years of age, with a sallow complexion, apparently a Dutch or German Jew, speaking in broken English in an undertone, introduced himself, showing me a business card, "Wunderlich and Co." The following day the pretended Wunderlich selected books from my stock to the amount of £270, and said he would come again and select more. At the same time the little dark, sallow man saw, but refused to buy, a very sweet little "Livre d'Heures," with lovely miniatures in camaïeu-gris, bound in black morocco, with silver clasp. The price of this lovely MS. was 50 guineas. Since then this mysterious little dark man has disappeared, and my very sweet little "Livre d'Heures," with its lovely miniatures, has disappeared also.'
In 1891 Messrs. Sotheran and Co. discovered that a number of rare books had been abstracted from their Strand shop, including a first edition of Burns's 'Poems,' 1786; Shakespeare's 'Poems,' 1640, first edition, with portrait by Marshall, and eleven extra leaves at the end; Heywood's 'Thyestes of Seneca,' 1560; and Piers Plowman's 'Vision and Crede,' 1561—all choice volumes. The Burns was valued at £30, and this was traced a month or two after its sudden disappearance to a bookbinder, who offered it to Mrs. Groves, who, however, wisely declined to lend money on it. Subsequently the book was sent to Mr. Pearson, Exmouth, who, knowing it had been stolen, at once communicated with the prosecutors. Two of the other books were traced to New York, and were returned to the firm at cost price. The enterprising bookbinder received twelve months' hard.
Mr. Waller, the bookseller, formerly of Fleet Street, relates a rather amusing incident connected with Thackeray: 'I think it was a book of "Services" in four small volumes, two of which he already possessed, and one, completing the set, he saw in my window. He came in, said he wanted that book, and gleefully told how he had picked up the third a few minutes before in Holywell Street. He dived into his pocket to show me his precious "find." It was not there! Between Holywell Street and Fleet Street someone had relieved him of it, in the belief, apparently, that it was an ordinary pocket-book with valuables in it!'
A by no means uncommon person is what may be described as the conscientious thief, or the man who steals one book and replaces it by another, which he considers to be of equal value. But a much cleverer dodge was that of a wily villain who selected a book from the stock of a firm of booksellers in the Strand, asking one member of the firm to charge it to him, and then selling it to the other partner at the opposite end of the shop a few minutes later! This can scarcely be described as book-stealing, for there is no proof that the 'book-lover' did not intend paying for the article ultimately. In this case the assumption was distinctly against his doing anything of the sort.
It will be seen from the foregoing facts that the book-thief hesitates at no class of book. But would he draw the line at stealing a book which deals with thieves? The late Charles Reade appears to have thought that he would not, for he has inscribed not only his name, but the following somewhat plaintive request, 'Please not to steal this book; I value it,' in a volume which Mr. Menken once possessed. The book in question is entitled 'Inventaire général de L'Histoire des Larrons,' Rouen, 1657. This singular work gives at length the stratagems, tricks, and artifices, the thefts of and assassinations by thieves, with a full account of their most memorable exploits in France. One cannot help wondering if a copy of this extraordinary book has ever been stolen from a book-collector, and of the remorse which must have overtaken the thief when he discovered the character of his prize. That indeed would be a strange irony!
But the book-thief is not by any means one of the numerous penalties of modern civilization. He has an antiquity which almost makes him respectable. Hearne, in his 'Johannes Glastoniensis,' states that Sir Henry Saville once wrote a warning letter to Sir Robert Cotton, who had offered some additions to the library of the founder of the Bodleian. An appointment had been made with Sir Robert to give Bodley an opportunity of inspecting the treasures on his shelves, and it was in anticipation of this that Saville thought it his duty to warn his friend in the following terms: 'And remember I give you faire warning that if you hold any booke so deare as that you would bee loath to have him out of your sight, set him aside beforehand.' On the authority of the above extract, Gough has charged Bodley with being a suspicious character—or, in other words, a thief; but the complete letter puts a very different complexion on the extract. He tars with the same brush Dr. Moore, Bishop of Ely, Dr. Rawlinson, and his friend Umfreville. In connection with the first-named, Gough repeats an anecdote which crops up every now and then as authentic, for these half-truths have an extraordinary vitality. The anecdote runs as follows: 'A gentleman calling on a friend who had a choice library, found him unusually busy in putting his best books out of sight; upon asking his view in this, he answered, "Don't you know that the Bishop of Ely dines with me to-day?"' There can be only one inference, of course. As a matter of fact, we do not believe that there is any truth in either rumour. So far as Dr. Moore, 'the Father of Black-letter Collectors,' is concerned, there can be no doubt that he had a fairly elastic conscience in the matter of book-collecting. He is said to have collected his library by plundering those of the clergy of his diocese, justifying himself by the cynical remark, Quid illiterati cum libris? We do not vouch for the truth of this anecdote, any more than for the graver charge, but probably there is some foundation for it. In the Harleian MSS. there is an interesting account of the several libraries, public and private, which existed in London during the earlier part of the last century. From this source we learn that 'in the days of Edward VI., in the chapel adjoining to the Guildhall, called my Lord Maiors Chapell, was a library well furnisht, being all MSS. Stow says the Duke of Somerset borrowed them, with a design never to return them, but furnisht his own study in his pompous house in the Strand; they were five cartloads.'
Horace Walpole expressed his opinion to the effect that virtuosi have been long remarked to have little conscience in their favourite pursuits. A man will steal a rarity, who would cut off his hand rather than take the money it is worth. Yet in fact the crime is the same. He tells us of a 'truly worthy clergyman, who collects coins and books. A friend of mine mentioning to him that he had several of the Strawberry Hill editions, this clergyman said, "Aye, but I can show you what it is not in Mr. Walpole's power to give you." He then produced a list of the pictures in the Devonshire, and other two collections in London, printed at my press. I was much surprised. It was, I think, about the year 1764, that, on reading the six volumes of "London and its Environs," I ordered my printer to throw off one copy for my own use. This printer was the very man who, after he had left my service, produced the noted copy of Wilkes's "Essay on Woman." He had stolen one copy of this list; and I must blame the reverend amateur for purchasing it of him, as it was like receiving stolen goods.'
The number of book-thieves has increased with the extension of public (or free) libraries. Here, the accumulated ingenuity of the literary thief has an ample scope, and he is not the man to let an opportunity escape. Some of the tribe have a mania for old directories; but novels are the most popular. The clerical thief with a thirst for sermons and theological literature is a by no means infrequent customer—and truly the indictment of a thief of this description ought to bear the fatal endorsement continued almost up to our own times, sus. per coll.—'let him be hanged by the neck.'
At one time nearly all the volumes in the very useful Bohn's Library series were kept in the Reading-room of the British Museum, but they so frequently disappeared that the authorities decided upon their permanent sequestration to a less handy part of the building. Last year Mr. C. Trice Martin's new 'Record Interpreter' was so highly appreciated both at the Record Office and at the Reading-room, that the copy at each institution was stolen from the shelves within twenty-four hours of its being placed there.
Women more or less respectably dressed are often objects of suspicion to public librarians; they are also a class infinitely more difficult to deal with than men, for, whilst the receptivity of their cloaks is infinite, their 'feelings' have to be considered. Whether guilty or innocent, the suspected party is bound to create a 'scene,' probably hysterics—and what is a public librarian, or, indeed, any other man, to do under such circumstances?
Libri was unquestionably the most accomplished and wholesale book-thief that ever lived. As Inspector-General of French Libraries under Louis Philippe, he had special facilities for helping himself—his known thefts have been valued at £20,000. We mention him here because his collections were sold at Sotheby's in 1860. One of the most interesting illustrations of this man's depredations was exposed in 1868, when Lord Ashburnham issued a translation of the Pentateuch from a Latin MS. which had been purchased by a previous holder of the title from Libri, who sold it under the condition that it was not to be published for twenty years. It had been stolen in 1847 from the Lyons Library, and the clause in the agreement, therefore, is easily understood. Libri evidently was not one of those whom Jules Janin describes as 'people who don't think it thieving to steal a book unless you sell it afterwards.'
Unfortunately, education has knocked all the virtue out of charms and incantation. Madame de Genlis is said to have fenced the greater part of her library with the following lines:
'Imparibus meritis pendent tria corpora ramis;
Dismas, et Gesmas, media est Divina Potestas;
Alta petit Dismas, infelix infima Gesmas.
Nos et res nostras conservet Summa Potestas!—
Hos versus dicas, ne tu furto tua perdas.'
Quite a long chapter could be made up of the doggerel rhymes frequently made use of in bygone days in which the prospective thief was warned off under penalties of a prison, or even of a worse end. Here is one:
'Si quisquis furetur
This little Libellum
Per Phœbum, per Jovem,
I'll kill him—I'll fell him—
In ventrem illius
I'll stick my scalpellum,
And teach him to steal
My little Libellum.'
And here is another:
'Qui ce livre volera,
Pro suis criminibus
Au gibet il dansera,
A curious and interesting chapter in the history of book-stealing is furnished us by Mr. F. S. Ellis. 'Some thirty years since I was talking with Mr. Hunt, for many years Town Clerk of Ipswich, who was an ardent book-collector, and in the course of conversation he lamented how some ten years previously he had missed an opportunity of buying a first edition of "Paradise Lost" under the following circumstances. There was a sale in the neighbourhood of Ipswich, in which a number of books were included. These were all tied in bundles and catalogued simply as so many books in one lot. Going over one of these bundles, what was his surprise to find a first edition of "Paradise Lost," with the first title-page, and in the original sheepskin binding! He said nothing, but went round to the auctioneer's house and asked him if he would be willing to sell him a particular book out of the collection previous to auction. "Oh, by all means," said the auctioneer; "just point me out the volume and say what you are willing to give me for it, and you can take it out at once." What was Mr. Hunt's chagrin and disappointment, on again taking up the bundle, to find that the number of books was all right according to the catalogue, but Milton's "Paradise Lost" had disappeared. Someone with as keen an eye as the Town Clerk had also discovered the jewel, and had put in practice the theory that exchange is no robbery, and had substituted some other volume for the Milton without going through the formality of a consultation with the auctioneer. Not long after this, a "Paradise Lost," which I have every reason to believe was the "Paradise Lost" described above, in the original sheepskin binding, and having the "first" title-page, was offered for sale to Mr. Simpson, who carried on an old-book business for Mr. Skeat, in King William Street, Strand. He purchased it for what in those days was considered a high price; but how much it was below what is now esteemed its value is witnessed by the fact that he offered it to the late Mr. Crossley, of Manchester, and after much haggling sold it to him for £12 12s. When Mr. Crossley had secured it, he quietly remarked, "And now let me tell you that if you find a dozen more copies in similar condition, I will give you the same price for every one." It remained in Mr. Crossley's library for many years, and at the sale of his books in 1884 realized what was considered the very high price of £25. Eight years after it had advanced to £120.'
The book-borrower is, perhaps, a greater curse than the thief, for he simulates a virtue to which the latter makes no pretension. The book-plate of a certain French collector bore this text from the parable of the Ten Virgins: 'Go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.' 'Sir,' said a man of wit to an acquaintance who lamented the difficulty which he found in persuading his friends to return the volumes that he had lent them, 'Sir, your acquaintances find, I suppose, that it is much more easy to retain the books themselves than what is contained in them.' A certain wise physician took a gentle way of reminding the borrower who dog-eared or tore the pages of his books: pasted on the fly-leaf of each of his books is a printed tag, bearing this legend: 'Library of Galen, M.D. "And if a man borrow aught of his neighbour and it be hurt, he shall surely make it good," Exodus xxii. 14.' A much more effective plan is that described some time ago in the Graphic by Mr. Ashby Sterry. In all the books of a certain cunning bibliophile he had the price written in plain figures; when anyone asked him for the loan of a book he invariably replied, 'Yes, with pleasure,' and, looking in the volume, further added, 'I see the price of this work is £2 17s. 6d.'—or whatever the value might happen to be—'you may take it at this figure, which will, of course, be refunded when the volume is returned.' If a person really wished to read the volume he would of course be glad to leave this deposit; and if he did not return it he would not be altogether an unmitigated thief. Mr. John Ashton relates, in his volume on the 'Wit, Humour, and Satire of the Seventeenth Century,' a curious anecdote which may be here quoted: 'Master Mason, of Trinity Colledge, sent his pupil to another of the Fellows to borrow a Book of him, who told him, I am loathe to lend my books out of my chamber, but if it please thy Tutor to come and read upon it in my chamber, he shall as long as he will.'
When Harrison Ainsworth was a youth and living at Manchester, he contracted an enthusiastic admiration for Elia, to whom he sent some curious books on loan. One of these was a black-letter volume entitled 'Syrinx or a sevenfold History, handled with a variety of pleasant and profitable both comical and tragical Arguments,' etc., by W. Warner, 1597. Lamb replied, December 9, 1823: 'I do not mean to keep the book, for I suspect you are forming a curious collection, and I do not pretend to anything of the kind. I have not a black-letter book among mine, old Chaucer excepted, and am not bibliomanist enough to like black-letter. It is painful to read; therefore I must insist on returning it, at opportunity, not from contumacy and reluctance to be obliged, but because it must suit you better than me.' The copy of Warner's 'Syrinx' Ainsworth had borrowed from Dr. Hibbert-Wade, and therefore it was not the future novelist's book to give. Ignoring, however, his expressed determination to return it, Elia lent the book to another friend, who shortly after went to New York, and may have taken the Warner with him, much to Dr. Hibbert-Wade's annoyance, of which he did not, it is said, fail to let Harrison Ainsworth know. It appears, however, to have returned again—indeed, it is probable that the book never left England—for it is now in the Dyce Collection at South Kensington, with 'Mr. Charles Lamb' written on one of the fly-leaves, and Dyce's note, 'This rare book was given to me by Mr. Moxon after Lamb's death.'
The ranks of London book-borrowers, as those of book-thieves, have included a number of men eminent or distinguished in some particular way. The Duke of Lauderdale was one of these. Evelyn tells us that he was a dangerous borrower of other men's books, as the diarist knew to his cost. Coleridge was a wholesale book-borrower, and the manner in which he annotated the books of his friends caused much strong and deep lamentation at the time. These 'annotated' books have now acquired a very distinct commercial and literary value.
The London Chronicle of December 3-5, 1767, contains a curious advertisement, headed 'Book-Missing.' It goes on, 'Whereas there is missing out of the late Dr. Chandler's Library the fifth Volume of Cardinal Pool's Letters, and it is presumed that the said volume of Letters was borrowed by some friend of the Doctor's; it is earnestly requested by the Widow and Executrix of the said Dr. Chandler that whoever is in possession of the said volume would be so kind as immediately to send it to Mr. Buckland, Bookseller, Paternoster Row, and the favour will be gratefully acknowledged.'
When Sir Walter Scott lent a book, he put in its place a wooden block bearing the name of the borrower and the date of the loan. Charles Lamb, tired of lending his books, threatened to chain Wordsworth's poems to his shelves, adding, 'For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read, but don't read; and some neither read nor mean to read, but borrow to give you an opinion of their sagacity. I must do my money-borrowing friends the justice to say that there is nothing of this caprice or wantonness of alienation in them. When they borrow money they never fail to make use of it.'
Just as the difference between the book-thief and the book-borrower is of too slight a nature to warrant independent chapters, so the hero who indulges in the luxury of a 'knock-out' is more or less of a thief, and this company is, essentially, a very proper place in which to find him. A 'knock-out,' it may be briefly explained to the uninitiated, is a system by which two or more booksellers—or, for the matter of that, any other tradesmen—combine to procure certain books at a lower than normal auction value. An American paper stated, some time ago, and among many other remarkable things, that 'a private buyer cannot obtain a book by auction in London at any price.' The extreme foolishness of such a statement need not be enlarged upon in this place. That the knock-out system does exist in London no one but a fool would deny. That it does occur now and then at such places as Sotheby's, Christie's, Puttick and Simpson's and Hodgson's, is without any manner of doubt, but not to any extent worth mentioning. Where the system is in vogue is at sales held in private houses, and at auction-rooms where books are not generally sold. At such places books are usually knocked down at absurdly low figures, until the private person steps in, when the prices begin to go up with a bound; they then realize oftentimes figures far above those at which they may be acquired at the shops. After the private bidder has been excited into paying an excessive price for his lots, he realizes that he is doing a foolish thing, and resigns the game into the hands of the trade, when the prices again begin to assume their former very low levels. The knock-out books are taken away by their nominal purchaser, and in a convenient back parlour of some handy 'pub' they are put up again for competition among the clique, when all profits realized are thrown into a pool, and afterwards equally divided.
'The two books you commissioned me to get were knocked down at £1 15s. and 10s. respectively,' said a bookseller to a well-known collector only the other day; 'and if you insist upon having them at these prices, plus the commission, you must have them. But as a matter of fact they cost me £1 over and above the total of £2 5s.' The reply to the collector's demand for an explanation was, 'Smith agreed to let me have these two books if I did not oppose his bidding for the Fielding.' It is scarcely necessary to say that the total cost, with the £1 thrown in, was much below the original commission, whilst the Fielding ran up to considerably over the price Smith intended to have given. By striking a balance, the two cronies each obtained what he wanted. An arrangement of this sort is nearly invariably the explanation of two extreme prices being paid for equally good copies of one book in a single season.
In 1781 a portion of the library formed by Ralph Sheldon, of Weston, Warwickshire, chiefly in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, was sold at Christie's, but the auctioneer throughout appears to have been victimized by the knock-out system. One of the lots, comprising a large collection of scarce old plays in fifty-six volumes, quarto, was knocked down to one bookseller for £5 5s.; he then passed it on to another for £18, and the collection was sold on the spot to Henderson the actor for £31 10s. At this same sale the English Bible, 1537, realized 13s.; two copies of the Common Prayer Book, 1552, 8s.; the First Folio Shakespeare, with two other books, £2 4s.; the 'Legenda Aurea,' printed by Notary, 1503, 10s. 6d. It would not be difficult to extend this list of illustrations, but perhaps one example is as good as a hundred.
We may, appropriately enough, conclude this brief but sufficiently lengthy notice of the knock-out system with an anecdote which shows that, in this case, a 'knock-out' would have been justifiable. At a certain famous book-sale a few years ago, a volume of no particular interest, except that it contained the autograph of the Earl of Derwentwater, was possibly worth £5. But the bidding was brisk, two of the dealers being evidently bent on having the prize. To the astonishment of everybody, the price went up to about 120 guineas, when one of the dealers gave in. Taking the other man aside, he said, 'Who have you been bidding for?' 'Mr. So-and-So.' 'So have I.' Another illustration of the unexpected and incomprehensibly sudden rise in the auction value of books is explained in the following extract of a letter from Horace Walpole: 'I cannot conclude my letter without telling you what an escape I had, at the sale of Dr. Mead's library, which goes extremely dear. In the catalogue I saw Winstanley's "Views of Audley End," which I concluded was a thin dirty folio, worth about fifteen shillings. As I thought it might be scarce, it might run to two or three guineas; however, I bid Graham certainly buy it for me. He came the next morning in a great fright, said he did not know whether he had done right or very wrong; that he had gone as far as nine and forty guineas. I started in such a fright! Another bookseller had, luckily, as unlimited a commission, and bid fifty. I shall never give an unbounded commission again.'
* Facilis descensus Averni is a Latin expression, meaning "Easy is the descent to Hell."
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