State intervention on humanist manuscripts in Feltrinelli Library sale at Christie's

Top lots go to private collectors, but the Italian State and European dealers put up a fight



Some twenty lots were withdrawn from Part II of the Giannalisa Feltrinelli Library Sale at Christie’s London on 3 December after the Italian State had declared that they may have left the country without proper export documents. They were not among the top lots by value, but of great historical interest. They will either be sold by private treaty to the Italian government or auctioned in Italy at a later date.

The library had been on deposit with the Pierpont Morgan in New York for fifteen years and prior to that was kept in Geneva. While part one (incunabula and early printed books) took place in New York on 7 October (The Art Newspaper, No.74, October 1997, p. 37 and No.76, December 1997, p.48), London was considered the better place to sell Parts II and III, Renaissance manuscripts, autograph letters and Italian illustrated books.

Both sales were realistically estimated and were ninety-nine percent sold by value. There was strong competition between European private collectors and the European trade, with private collectors securing the top lots. The Italian State and other institutions purchased several lots of historical interest.

The manuscripts were the more unusual part of the collection and were ninety-one per cent sold by lot, totalling £2.03 million. Few were illustrated; instead there was a very high concentration of material of historical interest, documents relating to the papacy and key figures in Italian history like Machiavelli, the Medici and the Gonzagas. These objects are rare, less in demand and not so easy to sell. While the illustrated material sold very well, it was the flexible reserves which allowed so many of the autograph letters to sell, several going at below estimate for as little as a few hundred pounds.

Vespasiano da Bisticci’s life of Alessandro di Bardi of 1480, still in its original Florentine binding with illustrated title page and initials, also made over estimate at £122,500, again to a private collector.

The Libro delle Pietre by Agostino del Riccio is an account, illustrated throughout with specimens of marble, detailing the materials used by many of the leading architects and sculptors of the time. It is both a beautiful object and a unique and fascinating document and fetched ten times the estimate, going at £133,500 to a European private collector underbid by London dealers Quaritch.

Part III, Italian illustrated books, was all sold, bar one lot, and totalled £1.3 million. Again, estimates were reasonable and the sale attracted a lot of interest from trade and private collectors. Giorgio Bonelli’s Hortus Romanus, although a very rare eighteenth-century botanical work—only one other complete edition is known—sold at mid-estimate, to a European private collector, because it was slightly spotted. Classics like Piranesi’s views of Rome and a complete set of Canaletto’s etchings of Rome were among the top lots at £73,000 and £54,300 respectively. A charming volume of watercolours of views of Rome commissioned by, and partly executed by, Lady Elizabeth Hervey, later Duchess of Devonshire, whose notorious ménage-à-trois with Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and her husband, the Fifth Duke, scandalised society, made four times the estimate at £16,100.

The remaining parts of the library will be sold later this year. Part IV, material of mainly local interest will be sold in Rome in March, Part V in London in April and June.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'State intervention on humanist manuscripts'