Dictionaries define success at Bonhams

The Dictionary Collection of Thomas Malin Rodgers
4 Dec 2012
New York

New York—Bonhams December 4 auction of the Dictionary Collection of Thomas Malin Rodgers had strong results from start to finish, realising sales over $1.1 million. A spring-like day in New York sparked lively bidding that ricocheted between the collectors in the saleroom to bidders on the phone and live online. "The phenomenal success of this auction pays testament to Tom Rodgers' great vision and collecting acumen. The tremendous breadth of Rodgers' dictionary library was well-known amongst bibliophiles, but today everyone came to realise what exceptional rarities and high-spots he assembled. Unique manuscripts in particular saw nearly relentless bidding," states Christina Geiger, Bonhams Director of Fine Books and Manuscripts for New York.

The earliest such manuscript was a Coptic glossary, written on vellum in Egypt in the 6th or 7th century, and selling for $80,500 (against a $12,000-$18,000 estimate). This small, ten-leaf manuscript is most likely intended for use by a professional scribe in the civil service.

Also sold for $80,500 was another diminutive early manuscript: an Anglo-Norman encyclopaedic compendium of places mentioned in the Bible, penned in England shortly after it was compiled by the Franciscan, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, circa 1245. Anglicus's work includes revealing entries noting the English ("residents of Albion") as "well-spoken and courageous" and the Normans as "strong, brave, fine warriors and well-dressed."

Papias of Lombardy, "everyone's favourite Grammarian" as quipped by the Bonhams auctioneer, is considered to have written the first modern dictionary in the 11th century: monolingual, organised alphabetically and with indications of gender, declension and pronunciation. A 13th-century Italian manuscript of Papias's dictionary (the only Papias manuscript Bonhams traced on the market since 1903) drew $74,500 against a $25,000-$35,000 estimate.

A few centuries later we have another phenomenal manuscript, also estimated at $20,000-30,000 but sold for $112,900: a manuscript Chinese-Spanish dictionary by the Dominican missionary, Francisco Diaz. Diaz reached the Fuan region of China in 1635. His lexicographical work pre-dates by a generation the first published western Chinese grammar (1703) and the present manuscript, from the late 17th century, is one of the earliest western-Chinese dictionaries extant.

Bonhams also sold a significant autograph manuscript from the 19th century by Peter Mark Roget of Thesaurus fame. His "Arrangement of Knowledge," circa 1805, was clinched after avid bidding for $35,000 against a $6,000-$8,000 estimate. Composed at the same time and on much the same principles as his original Thesaurus, the manuscript appears to have been unpublished and was unknown to his principle biographer.

The lots in the December 4 auction comprised a fraction of Rodgers' extensive holdings. Further selections from his dictionary collection will be offered by Bonhams over the course of 2013, including mediaeval manuscript leaves, 15th- and 16th-century printed books, and 17th- to 19th-century printed books and manuscripts.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

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