Last month AbeBooks sold a limited edition copy of Oscar Wilde’s famous comedic stage play An Ideal Husband for £12,968. The book was published in 1899 by London firm Leonard Smithers, who also published works by Sir Richard Francis Burton, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm and other authors associated with the Decadent Movement. In fact after the trials of Wilde in 1895, Smithers was one of the few publishers prepared to handle ‘decadent’ literature. The year following the publication of An Ideal Husband, Smithers went bankrupt, and he eventually died in 1907 from the effects of drink and drug use. His body was found on his 46th birthday, surrounded by empty bottles of ‘Dr J. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne’ - a mixture that contained laudanum, cannabis, and chloroform.
An Ideal Husband concerns blackmail and corruption, and some of its themes reflect the turmoil of Wilde’s own life. The play opened in January 1895 and three months later, Wilde was arrested for gross indecency.
Other expensive items on our list includes a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s big fish story, the last major work of fiction to be published in his lifetime. The book centers around an aging fisherman from Santiago, Cuba, who struggles with a giant marlin while out in the open ocean. Hemingway wrote this novel while living in Cuba and the book in question is a beautiful first edition with the original dust jacket.
A little less expensive but ultimately very interesting were two books from the library of General Peter Walls, former commander of combined operations of the Rhodesian army. Contact and Contact II were lettered presentation copies of this pair of books, which were created by John Lovett and Paul Moorcraft respectively, and document the history of conflict in the African territory.
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1. An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde - £12,968
A first edition published by Leonard Smithers in 1899, this edition was limited to 100 copies, bound in full crushed morocco and signed by Oscar Wilde.
2. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway - £5,799
3. Formulation: Articulation by Josef Albers - £5,504
Albers was a renowned artist and educator, who was one of the driving forces behind the Bauhaus movement. This work, published in 1972, contains 127 silk-screen prints, was limited to 1000 numbered copies, and was signed by Albers.
4. Contact: A Tribute to Those Who Serve Rhodesia by John Lovett - £5,155
This is a lettered presentation edition, this was “F”, of the first edition published by Galaxie Press in 1977. Bound in elephant hide, this book was presented to General Peter Walls, former commander of combined operations of the Rhodesian army. The book is also signed by numerous figures including the book’s author, photographer Ron Reid Daly, Rhodesian president John Wrathall, Clifford Dupont, and others.
5. The Art Institute of Chicago: 100 Masterpieces: Marc Chagall, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joan Miro, Ivan Albright, Willem de Kooning - £4,398
Bound in full leather, this numbered deluxe edition of the 1978 Rand McNally publication contains the signatures of Chagall, O'Keeffe, Miro, Albright and de Kooning added on the 100th birthday of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979.
7. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin - £4,188
Published in 1953 by Knopf, this is a first edition, first printing copy signed by the author.
8. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy - £3,866
Published in 1979 by Random House, this first edition was signed by the author on the half-title page.
8= Contact II: Struggle For Peace by Paul Moorcraft -£3,866
The follow-up to Contact: A Tribute to Those Who Serve Rhodesia. Published by Sygma books in 1981, this lettered edition (this was “A”) was also presented to Peter Walls, who contributed a foreword. The book is signed by president J.Z. Gumede, former prime ministers Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Ian Smith as well as Moorcraft and Walls.
10. The Woman as Good as the Man; or, The Equality of Both Sexes by François Poullain de la Barre - £3,383
Published in 1677 in London, this English translation of Poullain de la Barre’s publication suggests that the unequal treatment of women did not have a natural base but existed because of cultural prejudice.