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Christie’s Important Botanical Books Auction

Christie’s New York sale of Important Botanical Books on June 24 featuring many of the most significant medicinal herbals and fine illustrated botanical books from the 15th through the 19th century. Over 200 works, including many of the most celebrated in the history of the field, document the development of the scientific and artistic studies of plants throughout these four centuries. What distinguishes these works from other scientific books are the quantity, and John Hill, The Vegetable System, London, 1773-1786 Estimate: $200,000-300,000 outstanding quality, of illustrations they contain, from the earliest woodcut illustrations of the 15th century to the many extensive of hand-colored illustrations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The present collection comprehensively reveals the development of the simultaneous pursuit of artistic representation and scientific accuracy.

The sale features the earliest printed herbal to include a series of plant illustrations: the Herbarium Apulei, Rome, circa 1481-82 (estimate: $50,000-70,000). This is the only copy to appear at auction since an imperfect copy was sold in 1955. This book was one of the most widely used, and most practical, remedy books of the middle ages. It describes 131 plants, giving a multitude of prescriptions for maladies, ranging from madness, paralysis, dysentery, fertility, stomach ache and ulcers, to antidotes for various poisons. Of similar rarity is Macer Floridus’s De viribus herbarum carmen, Milan, 1482 (estimate: $30,000-50,000). Though not illustrated, it is considered the first printed herbal, with poems describing the medicinal and dietary properties of 77 herbs.

The Renaissance saw an immense increase in botanic study and publication. Perhaps the most celebrated botanical work ever printed, Leonhard Fuchs’s De historia stirpium, Basel, 1542 (estimate: $60,000-80,000) provided the first comprehensive study of plants and opened up the field to broader, and more specialized, study. The sale includes a superb copy of the first edition in a contemporary binding, as well as a copy of the first German edition, published one year later, and several pocket editions that were intended for use in the field.

Within a short period, botanical texts were being published throughout Europe. Notable contributors and contemporaries of Fuchs to the advancement of botany included in the sale are Hieronymus Bock’s De stirpium commentariorum libri tres, Strassburg, 1552, (estimate: $8,000-12,000) and Otto Brunfels’s Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem, Strassburg, 1531-36 (estimate: $12,000-18,000), and the next generation of scientists, from the great Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens to Italy’s Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Mattioli’s translations of the classical texts of Dioscorides became the most widely disseminated botanical books of the period. Perhaps the most renowned edition, Vincenzo Valgrisi’s 1568 Venetian edition, is included in the sale in very rare colored state (estimate: $12,000-18,000). Perhaps even rarer are two of the original wooden blocks used to print the illustrations in this edition.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, botanical illustration reached new heights of lavishness and precision. Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneering figure, being among the first women to publish color-plate books of such fine execution and beauty. Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, London, 1737-39, (image left- estimate: $15,000-20,000) records numerous unusual plants from around the world and was undertaken to pay off the debts of her husband, whose London printing-house had been ruined by rival printers. Some 20 years later began publication of John Hill’s The Vegetable System, London, 1759-86, (estimate: $200,000-300,000) a monumental work containing over one thousand two hundred hand-colored engravings. Not only is it the largest botanical publication of the eighteenth century, it is also of great scientific importance, being the first to give in the vernacular a comprehensive treatment of the plant kingdom and to adopt the Linnaean system. The tradition established by publications such as Hill’s was carried into the nineteenth century. Regional and focused studies of specific plants were made, such as Francesco Manuel Blanco’s Study of the Flowers, Fruits and Trees of the Philippines, Flora de Filipinas, Manila, 1880-83, (estimate: $30,000-40,000) that contained nearly 500 chromolithographs. The sale of Important Botanical Books illuminates the great eras of botanical illustration and discovery, where science and natural beauty entwined.