Often at work people approach me with the question of what to do about a loved one’s library after he or she has passed away. Cataloguing books is a lot of work, but it should be done before selling or tossing anything away. Otherwise, the collection could end up like Isaac Newton’s library.
When Isaac Newton died in 1727, his library of some 1900 volumes was put on sale (valued at £270 then, or about $55,000 today) and purchased by a man named Huggins (for £300/$61,000). Huggins affixed his bookplate, an ownership label, to each of the books. When Huggins died, James Musgrave, a family member by marriage, purchased the library (for £400/$81,000), and pasted his own bookplates over those of Huggins. Note: two bookplates, but no record within the books of Newton’s ownership.
Musgrave’s library was catalogued in 1760, and as late as 1775 it was known that he owned Newton’s books. But in 1778 Musgrave died, apparently without documenting this information for his children. (The catalogue, after all, could not make mention of Newton’s bookplates, since there weren’t any.) As a result, the knowledge that these books came from Newton’s library became lost for generations.
Fast forward to 1920. The Musgrave family decided to sell one of their residences. A large portion of their library was included in this sale, without any notation of its importance. Newton’s books were sold at the auction in bundles—the way auctions sell less desirable items—at about £100 in total ($3900 today). For a time it was assumed that the rest of the books had been pulped, meaning they had been chopped, chemically broken down, and fed into making recycled paper. Pulped! Isaac Newton’s own books!
Then Richard De Villamil discovered over 800 books owned by Newton at one of the Musgrave’s residences, which were then auctioned off with full knowledge of their distinguished owner. Villamil is my nerdy hero of the day; you should read his own account of this story, which has so many twists and turns it could be a mystery novel.
What happened to those books that were sold in bulk at the 1920 auction? Well, these are the kinds of books you could possibly find in an old attic somewhere. It’s always been believed that many of these books made their way to the United States, and plenty are unaccounted for.
Newton liked to dog-ear his books instead of writing in them. He would often dog-ear them so that the fold lined up with the sentence he wanted to remember. So if you have a book from a 1920 English auction with lots of dog-ears, you just might have a piece of Newton’s original library…but probably not.
Putting aside even the monetary value, I would love to own a book from Newton’s library. From whose library would you want a book?