15 APRIL 1995, Page 45


An insomniac's dream

Alistair McAlpine

There can be few achievements of mankind as civilised as founding a great library but few moments as sad for a collec- tor as when its dusty volumes are piled on tile green baize shelves of London's sale rooms. The Fifth Earl of Rosebery, (b.1847) started collecting books when he was at Eton and created not one but five great libraries. Life being what it is, howev- er, the poor man is far better remembered for his racehorses than his libraries. Even as Prime Minister, he is remembered as the only Prime Minister to win the Derby. How today's politicians must envy his luck as they spend their time trying desperately to win at anything, with no time for horse rac- ing or book collecting, let alone reading the wretched things.

On May 25th, Sotheby's will sell the Fifth Earl's library of French books. You may not find Lord Rosebery the most romantic figure, but his French book collection is exactly that. A volume by Marat, the French revolutionary, who met his end when he was stabbed to death in his bath by the disraught Charlotte Cardony, is bound in full morocco emblazoned with a co'at of arms. This tickled Rosebery's sense of htimour because he inscribed this book with a pencilled note: 'It seems strange to see a book of Marat's in so artistocratic a cover.' The estimate is £1,500. There are also plenty of first editions by Madame de Sthel, Montaigne, Moliere, Pascal and Montesquieu.

Lord Rosebery had a penchant for celebrities too. He bought books that belonged to Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry and Madame de Maintenon. His interest was not really for their content but rather for their pedigree. For example, the list nam- ing the 750 members of Queen Marie Antoinette's household can have been of little interest but it is, nevertheless, a won- derful book to own — estimated at £5,000. The Earl's wife took an unusually tolerant view of his obsessive collecting. On a visit, with her two daughters, to Mr Bain, the bookseller, one child exclaimed, 'This is not a toy shop,' Lady Rosebery replied, 'It's your father's toy shop my dear'.

The other great library being sold at Sotheby's on May 19th is that of the late philosopher Sir Karl Popper. Popper's working library is being sold intact. This, of course, does not mean that some avaricious dealer will not buy it and break it up, but at least there is a chance that it will go to a university - probably overseas.

Many of Popper's books not only contain his signature but important inscriptions and notes. In Bertrand Russell's 'Human Knowledge', Popper has written: 'Russell said to me, 'If I had heard before what you said today, I would not have written Human Knowledge'? Popper made a collec- tion of his own work, Master Copies, he called them, in which he made copious notes and revisions for later editions. This collection is estimated to fetch £50,000. A letter from Einstein to Popper giving him a resume of the celebrated imaginary experi- ment in which he cast doubt on the ability of quantum mechanics to give a complete description of physical reality, is estimated at £8,000.

Like Rosebery, Popper was an obsessive book collector. He built library shelves in almost every room of his house, including the garage, the out-houses, the corridors and hallways. Even his wardrobes were filled with books. Popper usually read six books at a time. .