Rare Russian books go on sale in the Midlands

A rare and highly valuable 19th century work of Russian literature dating back to before the reign of the last Tsar will be on sale this week, when a Birmingham City University collection goes to auction.

The 28 lots of some 200 books, mostly published in the 19th and early 20th century, includes a copy of the illustrated ‘Antiquities of the Russian Empire’, edited by a Russian Count and issued in four volumes in 1892.

They are expected to raise over £50,000 when made available by Dominic Winter Auctioneers in South Cerney, Gloucestershire on Wednesday 14 June. Proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in to new learning resources for students at the University.

The collection was developed from the mid Victorian period to support art and design education provided by Birmingham City University in its various incorporations, notably Birmingham College of Art. The books are now being sold because they no longer have relevance to current learning, teaching or research at the University.

Chris Albury, Auctioneer and Senior Valuer for Dominic Winter Auctioneers said:

We’re delighted to be able to handle this prestigious sale. It’s a very interesting and varied collection which includes a number of rarities – the undoubted highlight being the sumptuously illustrated ‘Antiquities of the Russian Empire’, discovered in the collection, which we estimate will fetch £30,000 or more.
This monumental, rare and influential work on Russian style contains over 500 large and vibrant chromolithographed plates of Russian artefacts including icons, crowns, costume, weapons and jewellery.

The work was edited by Count Sergei Stroganov and the plates were made from drawings prepared by Fedor Solntsev, after he was sent to Moscow in 1830 to see the collections there and make the illustrations. Solntsev later went on to design the ‘Kremlin Service’ for the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Steve Rose, Deputy Director, Library and Learning Resources at Birmingham City University, said:

The ‘Antiquities of the Russian Empire’ is a stunning collection of books. I will be sad to see the books leave the University, but it means we can place a greater emphasis on our extensive archives, photography and rare books that have direct relevance to the University’s research activity, as well as reinvest the funds from the sale into enhancing our student experience.

The set of six books was published with the Russian title ‘Drevnosti Rossiiskago Gosudarstva’ (‘Antiquities of the Russian Empire’) in Moscow between 1849 and 1853, with a smaller seventh volume of text appearing in Russian and French.

Chris Albury added:

What is remarkable and seemingly unique about the Birmingham City University copy is that it appears to have been issued in four volumes in 1892, using the 508 plates from the 1849-53 edition and incorporating an English title-page and English descriptions of the artefacts for the first time.
Fortunately, the work has escaped unscathed from the potential damage of over 100 years of library usage and is in good condition. Bound in Victorian half-leather bindings this treasure-house of Russian art and design will be highly desirable on the open market.
Only a modest 600 sets were published and even odd volumes and loose collections of plates from the work create considerable interest so we expect huge transatlantic international interest for this complete and unique ‘English language’ set.
Birmingham City University is a name that only dates back to 2007 and the original ownership of most of the varied books on art and design being sold here were no doubt acquired by one of the University’s original colleges, the Birmingham College of Art, which took its name in 1884.
Birmingham has a world-famous and rich tradition in art and design, and it is wonderful to see so many beautifully illustrated books and portfolios of designs – from Dürer to Arts and Crafts – in one sale. It’s a testament to the richness of design worldwide and the incredible development of colour printing and book production that many of the books in this archive can still offer something tangible and rewarding that cannot be easily gleaned from the Internet.

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