Adam Smith’s personal first edition copy of The Wealth of Nations from the library of the Scottish economist is to be sold next month, with an estimated value of £500,000 to £800,000.
The first edition copy of Smith’s magnum opus was one of two he kept on his shelves, which housed thousands of volumes including Enlightenment works by Voltaire, Rousseau and Smith’s friend David Hume, works of French literature and the classical writers of the ancient and Renaissance eras. The other copy of his own masterpiece, which last appeared at auction in 1959, has since been lost.
Julian Wilson, senior books specialist at Christie’s, which will auction the two-volume book in London on December 12, said The Wealth of Nations was among the key titles in western thought that had seen sharp price rises in the rare books market, along with those of scientific works such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
“The Wealth of Nations is one of those books that has seriously rocketed in value over the past 10 years. About 20 years ago it would fetch around £20,000. These days it’s £100,000 just for an ordinary first edition copy,” he said.
A pioneering work of political economy that marks the emergence of economics as a discrete academic discipline, Smith’s 1776 masterpiece explores fundamental themes such as money, production, the mechanism of the free market, trade between countries and the division of labour. Taking 20 years to come to fruition, its first edition sold out within six months of publication.
The copy being auctioned, complete with Smith’s bookplate, was once owned by Homer Vanderblue, a professor at Harvard Business School who spent decades amassing “Smithiana” with a particular focus on the work whose full title was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Vanderblue donated his collection to the Baker Library at Harvard University in 1939, leading Christie’s to surmise that he acquired Smith’s personal copy at a later date, although when is not known.
Christie’s declined to identify the seller of the book being auctioned, but said it was a European collector who acquired it around 20 years ago.
Books from Smith’s personal collection very seldom appear on the auction market. According to Christie’s research, the last time any book from his library was sold at auction was in 1991, when a 1780 French work by Abbé Malvaux on how to end begging went under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £2,000.
Also up for sale is a covering letter by Smith to his publisher, relating to his account of the last days of the philosopher David Hume. Smith praised Hume’s cool detachment in the face of his own death, making no reference to Christianity but remarking on Hume’s description of the playful exchange he would have with Charon, the ferryman of Hades.
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