Friday, September 7, 2012

The J. W. Rimington-Wilson Library (part 1)

(updated 10/3/21012 with some pointers from the Exlibris listserv)

James Wilson Rimington-Wilson (1822-1877) was one of the great collectors of books about chess, as well as books about other games and sports. Books from his library are not difficult to find--I showed one example from my collection in "Early Dublin editions of Hoyle" and another in "Eighteenth Century Whist Literature."

In the course of my research on Hoyle, I have learned a bit about the Rimington-Wilson library and how it came to be disbursed. As I don't plan to publish this material, I thought I would collect it in this and another essay, much as I have done with the biographical and bibliographical information (part 1 and part 2) about Hoyle's first publisher Francis Cogan. The sale of the Rimington-Wilson Library is a fascinating peek into the London book trade of the early 20th century.

Rimington-Wilson was born, lived, and died at Broomhead Hall, Yorkshire, England. He was a strong amateur chess player and records of some of his games survive, including a victory over Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion of chess. Rimington-Wilson developed an extensive gaming library, which was maintained and perhaps added to by his son, Reginald Henry Rimington-Wilson (1852-1927).

A number of documents survive describing the collection and its disposition. There is a hand list of his sporting books (horses, dogs, shooting, mountaineering, etc.) at the University of Virginia. After the death of R. H., his son Captain H. E. Rimington-Wilson (1899-1971) ordered the sale of the library by auction at Sotheby's. The sale catalogue appeared as:
Catalogue of the Famous Chess Library, including a fine manuscript of Oliver Goldsmith, together with a selection from the sporting and general library. The property of the late R. H. Rimington-Wilson, Esq. of Broomhead Hall, Bolsterstone. (Sold by Order of Captain H. E. Rimington-Wilson.)...On Monday, the 27th of February, 1928, and the following day. 
Sotheby's catalogues from 1734-1945 are available on microfilm, with hand-written records of purchasers and prices realized (see for example Berkeley's catalogue record here), so we know a great deal about the sale. There were 469 lots, most of which consisted of numerous books, and the the total realized was £9867 4s. As we shall see, the total is a bit deceptive in that a single book accounted for well more than half the total.

Chess historian John Keeble (1855-1939) described the Sotheby's sale in a series of articles published in the Falkirk Herald (cited in the interesting set of notes about "chess libraries, dealers and collectors" called "A Letter to Bert" by Bob Meadley). I will quote Keeble at great length to give a sense of the auction.
The chief chess event this month is the sale, by Sotheby’s (London) on the 27th and 28th, of the Rimington-Wilson Chess library. This famous library was formed by the late Mr J. W. Rimington-Wilson (1822-1877) and has not been added to since his death in 1877. It has always been considered the best in Europe, but as far as is known, Mr. H. J. R. Murray is the only person who has had access to it. The library is rich in manuscripts, the plum of the collection being an autographed chess poem by Oliver Goldsmith--a translation of Vida's "De Ludo Scaccoram", which good judges think is worth £200. The books and manuscripts together number over 2,300. First editions of all the early chess books are included in it, and generally in more than one copy...
A great surprise at the Rimington-Wilson chess library sale was the high price paid for Oliver Goldsmith's MS of his translation of Vida's chess poem. After spirited bidding from three parties it was knocked down to Messrs. Maggs for £5600. This price breaks all records for a chess item, either as a book or manuscript...
On the whole the foreign books sold well, but the English ones made much less than was expected. Two copies of James Rowbothums' chess book of 1562, entitled "The pleasant and wittie playe of the Cheasts renewed", were sold for £56 and £31 respectively, and a first edition of Arthur Saul [which I discuss in the essay "Chess, Hoyle, and a Bibliographer's Speculation"] of which only two other copies are known (one in the British Museum and one in Bodleian) went for £115, and two other valuable works were bound up with it. 
I promised to say something of the low prices for which lots were sold at the Rimington-Wilson sale. The founder of the library took great pains, when opportunity offered, to secure the MSS and books collected by famous players and composers of his time. For instance, he bought George Walker’s library, which included not only rare books, but valuable manuscripts by the Rev. George Atwood and Sir. F. Madden. He also obtained the whole of Bone’s collection and some by Horatio Bolton. He got everything that belonged to the English player and writer, William Lewis, and the famous professional, Lowenthal. Further, he himself made a folio MS of the chess openings.
All the parties I have mentioned fared very badly at the sale, and their literary efforts in the cause of chess were sold for what looks like waste paper prices. English chess owes more to the Rev. George Atwood than it does to any other person. Mr. Murray’s “History of Chess” mentions that George Atwood (1746-1807) joined the London Chess Club in 1787. He was not a strong player, but he made up for this by the industry with which he took down the games played at the club from 1787-1800, including most of Philidor’s games, and almost everything we know of Philidor’s play we owe to him. He recorded the results in three handsome manuscript volumes, and these were knocked down at the sale for ten shillings. A transcript of the Fountaine MS and four others by Sir. F. Madden also fetched only ten shillings.
Bone was an industrious man and an indefatigable collector and recorder of chess problems. In all, the library had 144 MS volumes which he compiled! These were sold in three lots for £13. Horatio Bolton fared a little better. His three volumes fetched £2.
W. Lewis’s autograph MSS filled 33 volumes, and went for 14 shillings. Lowenthal did more than Lewis. He compiled 48 volumes, which were handsomely bound in half Russia, and only ten shillings was bid for the lot.
Perhaps the most pathetic case was an autograph MS of the chess openings arranged by Rimington-Wilson himself. Seventeen large folio volumes of substantial thickness, bound in morocco, £1 the lot! It is to be hoped that some of these will eventually find a home in some permanent library in this country.
The price for the Goldsmith manuscript is striking. Keeble reports an estimate of £200 and a price realized of £5600! It accounted for well over half of the proceeds of the Sotheby's sale. It would be interesting to know where the manuscript resides today.

(Update) With the help of the EXLIBRIS listserv, I can trace the manuscript for another year. American Book Prices Current, VOL. XXXV (available for download) reports on books sales of 1929:
The event of the year at the Anderson Galleries was the sale of the Jerome Kern collection, which took place in ten sessions on January 7 to 10 and 21 to 24 inclusive, and brought $1,729,462.50. (page v)
ABPC notes the quick resale of the Goldsmith manuscript:
Goldsmith (Oliver). MS of his translation of Vida's Game of Chess, 34pp., sm 4to, 679 lines, with but 5 corrections Purchased for Chess Library of J. W. Rimington-Wilson as indicated in his hand, on fly-leaf and in 2 A L S. (1871) of F S Ellis (which are laid in), offering it to Mr Wilson in 1871 No. 335 sale catalogue Chess Library . R. H Rimington-Wilson, Sotheby, 1928 X (596) $27,000.00 (page 717)
X refers to the first days of the Kern sale and 596 is the lot number. At the time, the exchange rate was between 4 and 5 dollars to the pound, so there was at most modest appreciation in a year, with the Great Depression to follow.

Perhaps the low prices for the English books were due to collusion among the booksellers attending the auction.
It has to be stated quite categorically that 'rings', and their subsequent knock-outs or settlements, were the absolute norm in the antiquarian and secondhand book trade through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centures, right up to the 1970s...For the uninitiated, a ring is in being when a number of dealers act in combination and agree not to bid on certain lots, thus destroying the element of competition essential for a proper auction.[Hermann p13]
In any case, it was the Quaritch firm that purchased the vast majority of the Rimington-Wilson lots at Sotheby's. They offered the books in two catalogues shortly after the sale.

Quaritch Catalogue
(Levy Collection)
Quartich Catalogue
Donohue Rare Book Room
Gleeson Library
University of San Francisco

In the next essay, I will trace some lots from the Sotheby's sale into the Quaritch catalogues and out into public and private libraries. 

The Rimington-Wilsons also collected playing cards, although that collection stayed together much longer. It was sold by Christie's in London on November 24, 1971 by Captain H. E. R-W. For a description of the sale, see Sylvia Mann, "A Choice Collection of Playing Cards," Journal of the Playing Card Society, I:1, August, 1972 (available online).

  • Frank Herrmann, "The Role of the Auction Houses" in Out of Print & Into Profit. A History of the Rare and Secondhand Book Trade in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Giles Mandelbrote. London: The British Library, 2006. 

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