Fifteen Thousand Auction Catalogues Now Catalogued and Available to Search

  • 2 December 2021

The Paul Mellon Centre’s holdings of approximately fifteen thousand auction catalogues have now been indexed on the library’s online catalogue, as well as on Library Hub Discover, a database of almost two hundred UK and Irish academic, national & specialist library holdings. This is the culmination of many years of work to open up this aspect of the Centre’s collection to a far wider audience.

Four auction catalogues with colourful covers

Modern auction catalogues,

The Paul Mellon Centre’s library has an extensive collection of auction catalogues published from the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries but mainly dating from the late nineteenth century onwards. These have been acquired by purchase, subscription and donation over the past fifty years. Mainly from London auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, there are also holdings of catalogues from regional British auction houses, sales held on the premises at country houses, as well as some from sale rooms in Paris and New York. The catalogues collected mainly relate to British oil paintings, watercolours and drawings although some decorative arts, furniture and print sales have also been acquired over the years.

Three auction catalogues

Auction catalogues from the 1960s,

Within the library’s holdings there are a number of large bound sequences of auction catalogues gathered together by an individual or firm. These include a collection of three thousand sale catalogues bound in ninety volumes, dating from 1868 to 1929, collected by Arthur Tooth & Sons gallery in London. Most of these document sales at Christie’s but there are other auction houses represented, such as Messrs Foster, Puttick & Simpson, and Robinson & Fisher. Most sales are annotated; the majority include prices but many also have buyers’ names written in a clearly legible hand. Unusually, the staff at Arthur Tooth & Sons hand-numbered the pages within each bound volume and created an index of sellers for the individual sales. From 1899, some individual sales even have a hand-written index of artists and lot numbers, and these indices are bound at the end of each relevant sale.

An open auction catalogue with news clippings

Annotated auction catalogue from the William Roberts / Ellis Waterhouse Collection,

There are also two sequences of catalogues owned by Ellis Waterhouse, former director at the Paul Mellon Centre. The larger of these, contains 5,150 catalogues dating from 1892 to 1937. Built up by William Roberts, an art critic and art sales correspondent of the Times, and later purchased by Waterhouse, this collection is largely made up of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Messrs Foster, as well as Robinson, Fisher & Harding catalogues. It also contains some rare and hard to find items, including many on-the-premises sales from auctioneers throughout the country. Many of the sales are incomplete as Roberts often kept just the title page and the pages relating to the paintings and drawings lots. Many of these individual catalogues are annotated with prices and buyers’ names, and include the total amount realised for each sale. This exceptional collection also includes three thousand newspaper cuttings, images, journal articles and a small amount of correspondence that Roberts inserted or pasted into the sale catalogues.

Until now, many of these catalogues were simply listed on inhouse databases that were not accessible to external readers. However, earlier this year, these records were augmented and imported into the PMC’s online catalogue. At the same time, Mary Peskett Smith, Archives & Library Cataloguer, completed a multi-year project to index the bound sequences acquired from Tooth’s and Ellis Waterhouse, creating ten thousand individual catalogue records in the process.

It is now possible to search on the catalogue by date of sale, seller’s name and address (where published) and whether the copy of the catalogue in our collection is annotated or contains inserts. In many cases the library holds multiple copies of the same catalogue, annotated in different hands.

These records are now used by readers and researchers around the world, researching the provenance of paintings, the contents of former private and country house collections, and family history.

For more information on the auction catalogue holdings at the Paul Mellon Centre, see the library’s auction catalogues pages.