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2004-12, 343, 344, Auctions, Australiana, Richard Overell


Sold by Peter Arnold, Ormond Hall, Prahran, Melbourne,

24-25 February 2004

JOHN CHAPMAN’S library has long been known as one of the choice collections of Australiana. He has spoken on the subject to the Book Collectors’ Society, and shown some of the choice items. He had decided at the outset that rather than go down the well-travelled road of classic Australiana voyages and exploration journals he would concentrate on important but lesser-known titles. His collection was notable for the condition and the provenance of the items. It has often been referred to as a ‘cabinet collection’, and this is true inasmuch as it was very focused, but it was also quite large. There were 651 lots offered in the auction; of these 610 were sold, and many of the items passed in were sold soon after, at their reserve. The total realised was $1,624,688 (including buyer’s premium and GST). As Peter Arnold wrote in his summary of the auction,

A sense of occasion was evident and this was reflected in the prices obtained.

John’s decision to dispose of his collection by auction was partly the result of wishing to be present throughout the process. The auction catalogue is a fitting memorial to the collection with its meticulous descriptions, expository notes and illustrations.

The highlights were: the South Australian deed; the Port Phillip Papers; Cuthbert Clarke’s 1862 Illustrations to the diaries of Burke and Wills; E W Cole’s diary from the 1860s; the collection of material from the various 19th century exhibitions; the T J Wise material; the 19th century prompt copy of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, marked-up for performance by G V Brooke’s manager; and G A Robinson’s manuscript report of his journey among the aborigines of south-eastern Australia in 1844.

Jonathan Wantrup was one of the major bidders, operating on behalf of various clients, but there was spirited bidding from the floor on many of the lots by collectors acting on their own behalf. The highest price paid was $300,000 bid by telephone by the State Library of South Australia for the South Australian deed of settlement of 1836. This figure became $335,750 with the GST and the premium. There was only the one bid on that as no other institution, dealer or collector was really in the market for the item.

Such was not the case for the Port Phillip manuscripts, including a letter from John Helder Wedge. These were knocked down to the Australian Museum in Canberra after a bidding war with the State Library of Victoria, acting through their agent. The bidding was of course healthy and beneficial for the auction as a whole, although it surprised many people. Certainly it was a pity to see these unique items go outside Victoria, especially as the State Library in Melbourne has such a fine collection and is the logical destination for all researchers in the field. Such items benefit researchers most by being placed in the context of the other material on the topic. The Port Phillip Association manuscript memorial to Lord Glenelg went for $85,000 ($97,100) and the Wedge letter for $74,000 ($84,890).

Peter Arnold and John Chapman were the guest speakers at the 2004 AGM. The following is a summary of the night.

The President Wallace Kirsop introduced them saying how the auction was an important occasion for the Book Collectors of Victoria as a group: “We have known of many of the items over the years and everyone took a great interest in their fate.” Peter Arnold spoke first, saying the auction had been a success because it was a remarkable library. John Chapman began to collect in the late 1950s. He built up his library as a cabinet collection, with the emphasis on condition and association. It was difficult to compete with Tom Ramsay and Ian McLaren, with at a time the new Universities taking books off the market. John’s collection concentrated to some extent on themes such as the growth of colonial culture. It was not intended as a complete collection of Australiana, but of rare and unusual items.

The Aboriginal material went well, as did the early photographs, and the exhibition items. A gold licence, with associated memorabilia, went for $2,200 on an estimate of $400-600. Colonial literature went to the institutions and a few private collectors. The standard histories such as Labilliere and Clutterbuck went for much the same prices as they were selling for years ago. Colonial medical books went for modest prices.

Exploration books were a little flat: Hovell’s Answer to Hume (1874) went for $15,000; it had brought $11,500 fifteen years ago at the Evans sale.

Sometimes one or two people can make a great difference, e.g. one item, Strachan’s Some notes and recollections (1927) had on it an estimate of $300-400, and went for $2,400 because of two bidders, one of whom was the author’s grandson, the other was living in the author’s house. The most obvious case was the bidding between the two major institutions for the Port Phillip material; this probably added at least a third to the prices realised by those lots.

The State Library of South Australia was able to buy the South Australian item because a businessman stepped in at the last minute and enabled the Library to go to the reserve.

John Chapman thanked Peter for his effort and expertise, he came out to John’s house two afternoons per week for about twelve months to work on the material. John also thanked the collectors and the institutions who bought the books, and hoped the people involved would have a much pleasure from the books as had had himself. His main emphasis now was on his collection of coins and medals.

John said he would have loved to have had a collection like Rodney Davidson’s, full of landmark, iconic books of discovery and exploration, including such plate books as Lewin and Lycett. John felt however that his collection filled in some of the detail of history. Many of his books are rarer numerically since they have been relatively neglected by mainstream collectors. The books on how to collect Australiana usually use as models the heroic items. Speaking of his books, John said: “With a lot of them, if you don’t get a copy when the opportunity is presented, you may never see it again, whereas there is always another Cook voyage or First Fleet journal.”

This leads on to the question of what these books are worth. Unlike the iconic books which have an established price, these books seldom appear at auction, so the prices they fetch can be difficult to predict.

Institutions tend to have the icons but lack the others, and it is often the books less-collected which are important for social historians.

Many of John’s books came from other auctions, e.g. lot 144, the collection of 32 British Acts relevant to the Australian colonies, cost him $600 at Tom Ramsey’s sale; it brought $7000 at John’s sale. Item 187, Rev Johnson’s address (1794) cost $340 and fetched $13,000; and Lionel Lindsay’s etching of Henry Lawson (item 251) cost $400 but fetched $4,800. Ronald’s Treatise on gold (Geelong, 1851), item 546, cost $65 but went for $4,250.

During question time, Shane Carmody of the State Library of Victoria acknowledged how disappointed that institution was to have missed buying the Port Phillip material but made clear that they respected the right of collectors to dispose of their collections as they see fit. The State Library had much to be thankful for. John Chapman had been extremely generous to them in donating the Eureka Petition. Shane informed the meeting that the petition would be touring the state as part of the “Victorian Treasures” travelling exhibition.

Wallace Kirsop thanked the speakers and pointed out that this dispersal was an example of how bookdealers and collectors are able to prepare the way for researchers, and open new areas by gathering collections together and bringing them to our attention.

Richard Overell,

Secretary, Victorian Branch.



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