World Coins

'Finest of its kind' numismatic library for sale

A prestigious collection of numismatic literature is crossing the electronic auction block.

Sotheby’s announced July 7 that its 10-day sale of the Collection of Patricia Milne-Henderson: Books on Coins, Medals and Antiquities, would begin the following day and continue through July 18.

The collection is “considered to be the finest private library of its kind in existence,” according to Sotheby’s.

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The auction provides an insight into the history of British book collecting, and takes the reader on a journey through some of the greatest libraries ever assembled, the firm said. 

Who was Patricia Milne-Henderson?

Milne-Henderson began collecting numismatic literature in the 1960s, building the collection over the course of almost 50 years, seeking many rare and variant editions, with superb illustrations. 

An art historian, she was married to Michael Jaffé (1923 to 1997), former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The provenance of these tomes includes Charles II (bound specially for his library at St. James), the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Pembroke, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, William Beckford, Sir William Stirling Maxwell and the Earl of Bute.

Many of the books in the collection date to the Italian Renaissance, when there was a craze for excavation and uncovering the glories of antiquity. 

Archaeological finds in Rome and elsewhere at this time meant that Roman coins existed in substantial quantities and were therefore widely available; they provided genuine and datable images of Roman history, art and culture in a portable form. 

What kind of books are in her collection?

The earliest book in the collection is Fulvio’s Illustrium Imagines of 1517, one of the very first attempts at identifying famous faces of antiquity from numismatic evidence. 

A generation later, it was understood that images on coins could enhance and clarify historical knowledge, and they were used to help identify statues of Greeks and Romans. Catalogs of coins were also used by artists as sources of images and symbols, particularly for allegorical figures.  

Fulvio’s book was published on Nov. 15, 1517. 

An antiquarian living in Rome, Fulvio was a friend of Raphael, and advised him on his portrayals of the ancient city. 

This book contains woodcut medallion portraits of classical figures (from Alexander the Great onwards). The portraits used were not always historically accurate, despite the blank spaces left for some characters implying that accurate portraits were yet to be found. Each page is designed to resemble an antique monument with the portrait above and the text (comprising a brief biography) carved beneath. 

The portraits were based on coins and medals from the collection of Giacomo Mazzocchi — appointed one of the Papal Commissioners for Antiquities in 1515 alongside Raphael and Fulvio.

The Milne-Henderson example of the book was once owned by Sir William Stirling-Maxwell (1818 to 1878), one-time member of Parliament for Perthshire, Rector of St. Andrews and Edinburgh Universities, Trustee of the British Museum and National Gallery. It has an estimate of £3,000 to £4,000 (about $3,874 to $5,166 U.S.).

In total, all 115 lots in the auction have a combined pre-sale estimate of £92,000 to £132,000 ($118,814 to $170,473 U.S.).

For full details of the auction, visit the auction firm website.

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