A Brill Calendar: March 14

"Sold To The Highest Bidder"

Few intellectual activities are less controversial than putting individuals, events or predicaments ‘in historical perspective’.

Tomorrow’s exigencies can usually do without such a view, but the auction of books not yet bound held on March 14 1871 in the ‘Eensgezindheid’ building on the Spui in Amsterdam certainly deserves such a perspective.

All the items 'sold to the highest bidder' were the property of Evert Jan Brill, who was preparing to step down from directing his Company. The foreword of the printed catalogue sent to friends and business relations explains the reason for this public sale: namely, to make short shrift with stock impeding his ‘otium cum dignitate’. Many of these books carried his personal imprint; others had been bought at publishers’ auctions before, some more than twenty years earlier.

A smaller part of the offer carried a minimum price to be fetched; the bulk could go at any price. It is seldom that a booklover’s resignation is more clearly expressed. It should be noted, however, that Brill’s books in Asiatic languages were kept out of the auction; the shrewd publisher knew their worth and value well. A ‘historical perspective’ for this event would be a sketch of the importance of the legendary Luchtmans Auction (1849), where Brill was the main purchaser; and, true enough, the ‘bad pennies’ were coming up again.

If one were to take a more 'evocative' view of the historical context then one would note some significant contemporary developments. Earlier that year, the Capital City of France had fallen after a long siege by the Second German Reich – Chancellor Bismarck’s dream – to ‘les boches’, while four days later the prudent auction the Revolution of Parisian ‘Communards’ would astonish, scare and embitter Europe. And the Congress of the United States of America decided that very month to discontinue the time-honoured tradition of recognizing Indian tribes in the northern subcontinent as ‘independent powers’.