The Auction Impresario

This guest post is written by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library, who is now working on the University Library’s early Dutch books) in advance of the 400th anniversary next year of Isaac Elzevier starting his printing office in Leiden.  At present, Jaap Harskamp is in the process of adding all Dutch imprints at the Library to the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN) and in due course we will have a complete overview of our substantial Elzevier holdings. In this essay he concentrates on a lesser known aspect of the Elzevier book business and its impact on Britain and Cambridge.


An early version of the famous Elzevier logo introduced by Isaac Elzevier in 1620 and still in use today. Taken from title page of the 1674 Catalogus librorum qui in bibliopolio Danielis Elsevirii venales extant (U.4.56)

In 1580 Lowys (Louis) Elzevier, a former apprentice of Christopher Plantin in Antwerp, moved from the Southern Netherlands to the northern university town of Leiden where he set up his own book shop. Six years later, after working mainly as a bookbinder and bookseller, he was appointed beadle of the Academy. His grandson Isaac was the first member of the Elzevier dynasty to run a press and printing office from 1617 onwards. The family company continued until 1712 as the most successful printers/publishers in Europe (over 2,000 titles, excluding academic dissertations and disputations). There were further branches at The Hague, Utrecht and Amsterdam, and the Elzeviers were appointed official printers of the University of Leiden.

Louis was also at the forefront of the book auction trade. In 1596 he was granted official permission to hold auctions in the Great Hall of the Binnenhof (Inner Court) at The Hague. The earliest sale with a printed catalogue dates back to 1599 – the famous auction of Marnix van St Aldegonde’s collection1 – and this proved such a successful practice that the Netherlands were to dominate European book auctions for a long time to come. It was not until 1676 that similar auctions were introduced into England from Holland.


Title page with portrait and facsimile title page of Catalogue of the library of Philips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde (9850.c.1863)


Title page of Catalogus variorum & insignium librorum instructissimae bibliothecae clarissimi doctissimiq. viri Lazari Seaman (U.3.27)

William Cooper was a bookseller based in Little Britain, City of London. In this lively centre of the capital’s book trade, he conducted his business at a shop under the sign of the Pelican. His primary interests were occult and scientific books, and his Catalogue of Chymicall Books, first issued in 1673, remains a valuable guide to book production in these subject areas.2 Book auctioneering in Britain started in Little Britain at Cooper’s premises with the first public auction beginning on 31 October 1676 and lasting for eight days. The collection being sold belonged to Leicester-born clergyman Lazarus Seaman who had been educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In his will of June 1675, he put his personal library of over 5,000 volumes in trust and laid down stipulations for its sale.3 Cooper was keenly aware of his historic role in this new method of bookselling in England, which followed the same pattern as those set up in Leiden and Amsterdam. This first sale established the format and procedures which would regulate the business in the future. The success of this experiment soon caused the practice to become popular, and, before the end of the century, more than a hundred auctions had taken place. The majority of these sales were held by Cooper and Millington.

Title page of Wagstaffe's Question of witchcraft debated (N.6.14)

Title page of Wagstaffe’s Question of witchcraft debated (N.6.14)

Young Edward Millington was apprenticed to a haberdasher. Having completed his apprenticeship, he was granted the freedom of the Haberdashers’ Company on 28 June 1661 and became a citizen of London not long thereafter. Like many other haberdashers Millington took on the trade of bookselling, and started his first print shop at the sign of the Pelican on Duck Lane in Little Britain where, in 1669, he published John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft Debated in which the author offers a robust critique of the belief in witches.4 His name can be found in the imprints of another half a dozen books. He soon found a new mission in life.

The term impresario as we know it today from the entertainment industry originates in the social and economic world of Italian opera. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards the impresario was a key figure in the organization of a lyric season. The term is on occasion applied to other professionals (museum curators, conference organizers), who take a lead role in orchestrating events. Millington, having learned his trade from William Cooper, applied the term to auctioneering. He called himself an auction impresario, advertising sales all over the country. Millington travelled extensively to promote his auction sales. Although most were held in London (from 1695 until his death he was based at St Bartholomew Close), he also conducted auctions in Cambridge, Tunbridge Wells, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Kings Lynn, Bath, Oxford and Gloucester. Contemporary observers described him as the ‘best auctioneer in the world’.

The first known auction involving Millington was the major sale of the library of Dutch Calvinist theologian Gijsbert Voet (Gisbertus Voetius) at the White Hart in St Bartholomew Close, Little Britain, on 25 November 1678, although he probably began his auctioning career well before this event. Millington was a master of the trade, a fluent talker and a fine flatterer of scholarly vanity. The prefaces to his sale catalogues frequently referred to the erudition of his potential buyers. It must have been quite an occasion: the light-hearted and quick-witted London auctioneer offering books for sale that were either written (in large numbers) or collected by a hard-line Gomarist at Utrecht University. His book auctions were so successful and entertaining that he soon expanded his sales repertoire into both the art and the fashion markets. Out of the 84 recorded auctions in which he took part, 50 were sales of books, while 28 were sales of artworks, the remaining sales being auctions of various miscellaneous goods.

Millington died on 27 September 1703 in Cambridge – on the job, a Tommy Cooper of auctioneering. He was ‘immortalized’ in a verse by the Grub Street poet and satirist Thomas Brown which attempted to capture Edward’s performance as an auctioneer: An Elegy upon the lamented Death of Edward Millington, the Famous Auctioneer (1703).5 In some fifty lines, the text provides an entertaining picture of Millington’s auctions and concludes with an epitaph:

Underneath this Marble Stone

Lies the famous Millington;

A man who through the world did steer

I’th’ Station of an Auctioneer:

A man with Wondrous Sense and Wisdom blest,

Whose qualities are not to be exprest.


 1. The Library holds a reprint of this catalogue: Catalogue of the library of Philips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde: sold by auction (July 6th), Leiden, Chr. Goyot, 1599 / [introduction by G. J. Brouwer]. Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1964.
[Original title page: Catalogus librorum bibliothecae nobilissimi clarissimique viri piae memoriae D. Philippi Marnixii, Sancto-Aldegondij]. 9850.c.1863

 2. The Library holds a microfilm of the original copy (British Library) at: B125:2.9.Reel 88:13.

There is also a reprint available: William Cooper. A catalogue of chymicall books, 1673-88 / [edited by Stanton J. Linden]. New York: Garland, 1987. B150.340.16

 3. Catalogus variorum & insignium librorum instructissimae bibliothecae clarissimi doctissimiq. viri Lazari Seaman, S.T.D.: quorum auctio habebitur Londini in aedibus defuncti in area & viculo Warwicensi, Octobris ultimo / cura Gulielmi Cooper, bibliopolae. Londini: Apud Ed Brewster & Guil. Cooper, 1676.

 4. There are multiple holdings of this book available in the Library (e.g. 6000.e.91, N.6.14, Hunter.e.67.8)

5. Thomas Brown. An elegy upon the lamented death of Edward Millington, the famous auctioner [sic]. ([Colophon]: London, published by John Nutt, 1703).

Guest author: Dr Jaap Harskamp


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