A Sydney book dealer has paid AUD$288,000 at an auction conducted by Bonhams & Goodman after a frenzy of bidding from Australian museums, dealers and private collectors. The result is a new world auction record for an Australian manuscript and amplifies the current interest in Australian historical items.

The 18th century official manuscript, a single sheet of paper with handwriting on both sides, details the fundamental logistics of the First Fleet. Countless publications refer to the operational details of the First Fleet- names of the ships and the military and administrative personnel and civilian convicts; it is believed they are referencing this document.

The manuscript was acquired by Anne McCormick of book dealer, Hordern House who says she was acting for a private client who did not wish to be named.

A chance discovery by Bonhams specialists in London produced the missing official document. Head of Books, Maps and Manuscripts at Bonhams & Goodman, Tory Page said, “This is a remarkable result for a remarkable discovery. There has not been a manuscript associated with the First Fleet offered for sale by auction in memory.”

The last auction sale of a document connected to the First Fleet was on 25 July 1995. A letter written by Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne, dated 3 July, 1788 was sold for $107,000 at a Melbourne auction about 10 years ago. It was subsequently purchased privately by the State Library of NSW.

“There is a growing interest in any item associated with Australia’s young but proud history”, said Tim Goodman, Chief Executive officer at Bonhams & Goodman. “I am thrilled that a chance discovery in the United Kingdom has seen this document travel to Australia so that a piece of our history can be repatriated. There is phenomenal interest in Australian historic items as we saw when we recently sold the Shout Victoria Cross to Kerry Stokes and the First Fleet table to the National Museum of Australia both also making new world auction records.” added Goodman.

The document was discovered in the United Kingdom by Bonhams Book Specialist, John Walwyn-Jones. He was sent an 18th century copy of George William Anderson’s edition of Cook’s three voyages for sale by an elderly client who is terminally ill. Upon inspecting the book Walwyn-Jones found the document glued into it where it appears to have been for a hundred years or more. The specialist said to his colleagues in a dry celebration of the British art of understatement, “I have found something that looks quite interesting”. A quick trip to the London library and a perusal of Ferguson’s The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, 1789 where much of the original document is reproduced confirmed that the auction document was a period manuscript.

Since then a Sydney book dealer has revealed that indeed the document has also been reproduced in another rare book of the period, William Eden’s “Introductory Discourse on Banishment”, 1787, providing further confirmation of the date and authenticity of the document.

On 31 August 1786, Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary to the Admiralty issued instructions for the First Fleet and the establishment of a colony at Botany Bay. On 12 October 1786, King George III issued a commission to Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy appointing him “Governor of our territory called New South Wales”. This First Fleet Document would have been issued sometime soon after.

The provenance is fascinating. There is a trail of evidence that the document was in the possession of a family living in Portsmouth where the First Fleet was assembled and from where on 13 May 1787 it had set sail for Australia. It is probable that the document became the property of the current owner by decent from the Clowes family of Portsmouth.