Christmas 1776 was a real treat for the economist’s lucky friends, says Chris Carter.
If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for the MoneyWeek reader who has everything, Christie’s has a suggestion – a first edition copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But not any old first-edition copy. The auction house is offering none other than the copy that sat in the personal library of the influential 18th-century Scottish economist. In fact, Smith owned two copies. The other, and the one with his annotations, was sold at auction in 1959 for £420 to Italian economist Piero Sraffa, who died in 1983. That copy is now “lost”. That makes this copy, published in two volumes, all the more valuable.
First published in 1776, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to give it its full title, has been around for a while. But even after 242 years, Smith’s treatise on the benefits of a free-market economy still remains essential reading. Our editor-in-chief, Merryn Somerset Webb, had it on her recommended summer holiday reading list this year. And in recent years MoneyWeek’s Briefings writer, Simon Wilson, has cited the dense tome while considering whether we should do away with the Bank of England and whether economic growth can run on forever. The US president would do well to flick through its pages – Smith was one of the first to argue that, far from making countries richer, trade barriers only ever serve to beggar economies. Not for nothing is Smith known as “the father of modern economics”.
The calf-leather-bound copy that’s heading for auction was acquired by Homer Vanderblue, a professor at Harvard Business School and a collector of the works of Adam Smith, some time after 1939 but before his death in 1952. You will find his bookplate below Smith’s. It then passed into the hands of private collectors until making its appearance in London. Next Wednesday it is expected to fetch between £500,000 and £800,000. It is, says Eugenio Donadoni, Christie’s head of sale, in The Scotsman, “a unique opportunity to acquire the author’s own copy of the foundational text of modern economic thought”.
It could also be a canny investment opportunity. The Wealth of Nations “has seriously rocketed in value over the past ten years”, Julian Wilson, senior books specialist at Christie’s, tells the Financial Times. “About 20 years ago it would fetch around £20,000. These days it’s £100,000 just for an ordinary first-edition copy.”
Also appearing as part of Christie’s “Valuable Books and Manuscripts” sale is a signed letter written by Smith to his publisher, William Strahan, dated 13 November 1776. It has been given an estimate of between £55,000 and £80,000. In it, Smith discusses the recent death of his “invaluable” friend, the Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume, before discussing his plans for Christmas and the £300 (around £47,000 today) he has so far been paid from the sales of The Wealth of Nations. He also adds that he has received a number of copies “to make presents of”. So, you have it from Adam Smith himself. The Wealth of Nations makes for a great stocking-filler – even if you can’t quite stretch to Smith’s own first edition.
A precious find
A first-edition copy of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit from 1937 sold for £6,000 at Bonhams in London last week. The novel, which tells of hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ quest to relieve Smaug, a dragon, of his riches, was found among a box of religious books at a branch of Oxfam in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
The next day, at Christie’s, a collection of Russian first editions went under the hammer. One of the most intriguing lots was a blue-cover copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago from 1958, the year after it was first published. The book was banned in the Soviet Union so, to embarrass Moscow, the CIA handed out the blue-linen copies to Russian visitors at the World’s Fair in Brussels that year via the Vatican Pavilion. Most copies were destroyed – the pages were ripped out to hide them better – but the copy up for sale was kept in the Library of Congress. It sold for £22,500.
A censored writer treated with rather less indulgence by the Vatican was William Tyndale. The 16th-century English scholar had been condemned as a heretic for translating the New Testament into English. He nevertheless printed around 3,000 copies. Most “Tyndale Bibles” were hunted down and destroyed, but one rare leather-bound copy with woodcut illustrations, dating from the year of Tyndale’s execution in 1536, appeared at Chiswick Auctions in west London last week. It far exceeded its £10,000 estimate and fetched £37,500.
Those who have seen The Wizard of Oz know not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, but a Los Angeles auction house is hoping people will be obsessed with early drafts of the classic film’s script, says Chris Morris for Fortune. The five versions, four of them by screenwriter Noel Langley, for the 1939 classic starring Judy Garland (pictured), will feature in the sale held by memorabilia auctioneers Profiles in History between 11 and 14 December. The single lot is expected to sell for up to $1.2m. The hat worn by the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, will also appear as part of the sale. It has been valued at up to $80,000.
In July, a “lost” screenplay by director Stanley Kubrick and novelist Calder Willingham, called Burning Secret, and dated 24 October 1956, was found by Nathan Abrams, a professor in film at Bangor University. The plot, which Abrams described as “the inverse of Lolita”, is set in a spa resort and follows a predatory man’s attempt to befriend a ten-year-old boy in order to seduce the boy’s married mother. It is based on the 1913 novella of the same name by the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig. Estimated to sell for $20,000 at Bonhams in New York, the film script in fact sold for twice that at $47,500 (including fees) on 20 November.