Dictionary raises £40k at Lewes auction

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, in four volumes
Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, in four volumes
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Every now and again an item will turn up at auction and whether it be in London, New York or Lewes, the sale price takes the in-house auction experts and often senior dealers by complete surprise.

These pieces are fondly known as ‘sleepers’, and such was the case with the seemingly unremarkable Lot 1411 in the Gorringes book sale in Lewes last week – Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, first edition, folio in four volumes, London 1755.

It was sent for sale at the North Street auction house by the family of the late Michael Clarke-Jervoise from the family seat at Idsworth Park, Hampshire.

The dictionary was estimated at £2,000-3,000 as based on other results of similar sets sold over the last few years.

The bidding rose swiftly from £2,000 to £8,000 leaving collectors and respected local book dealers in the wake as it climbed slowly but surely to £20,000 with a determined telephone bidder falling aside for his place to be taken by a lady in the far corner of the room, acting on behalf of a firm of internationally famous book dealers.

She doggedly pushed on to £39,000 before a final bid of £40,000 saw the gavel fall in favour of an equally famous London book dealers, both of whom wish to remain anonymous.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was very different from any previous such publication. He was paid 1,500 guineas to compile it by a group of London booksellers and took more than nine years to complete the task.

Unlike previous dictionaries, Johnson chose to illustrate the meanings of words by way of literary quotation, many of which are famous for their wit and humour.

Examples include the following:

Excise: A hateful tax levied on commodities.

London: When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

Second Marriages: The triumph of hope over experience.

Patriotism: The last refuge of a scoundrel.

So why the big price? The scholarly buyers believe that this work is possibly unique having been rebound within a year of publication into four volumes from the normal two, left with the pages untrimmed but also having every page interleaved with tissue throughout.

Samual Johnson (1709-1784) made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer.

He has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”.