The first edition of the Wealth of Nations that made the headlines in the Old Library of the House of Representatives in 2018 turns out to have been the bargain of the century. Media reported at the time that the book was worth ‘a quarter of a million’. Research has now shown that it was acquired for just over three guilders in the late nineteenth century.
Headlines in 2018
The Wealth of Nations is considered as the magnum opus of the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith. When a previously unrecorded copy of the first edition from 1776 turned up in the Library of the House of Reprensentatives in The Hague in 2018, it made all the headlines. Unfortunately, we were unable to answer questions about the provenance of the copy at the time. Based on old library stamps on the title-pages we assumed that it had entered the library at least a century ago, but we did not have more information.
Acquisition at an auction in 1878
The project on the Historical Book Collection of the Dutch House of Representatives brought to light a great number of account books and other archival documents which are connected with the collection. Therefore, it is possible to determine precisely when specific books entered the library. The Wealth of Nations is mentioned in the printed acquisition lists of 1878, but is not found in the handwritten registrers of that year.
There is a reference to a payment made to bookseller Martinus Nijhoff in the registers, howevever the titles of the books are not specified. That seems like a dead end, but there is one interesting clue. The date in the register corresponds to an auction which was hosted by Nijhoff in the week of 11 March 1878. The catalogue of that auction indeed holds a copy of the first edition of the Wealth of Nations (#393).
So how do we know for suere that this was the copy of the Wealth of Nations that the House of Representatives acquired in 1878? There is an annotated copy of the auction catalogue at the Special Collections of Allard Pierson/University of Amsterdam. Thanks to my colleague at the Allard Pierson Gwendolyn Verbraak we found out that lot 393 was acquired by ‘Noordziek’ for 3 guilders and 75 cents. Jan Jacobus Frederik Noordziek (1811-1886) was the librarian of the House of Representatives from 1854 until 1886. In retrospect it is fair to say that this was a very smart and profitable acquisition!
As was often the case, the auction was compiled by books from a number of different collections. Tracing the book’s provenance to a specific collector should therefore be done with caution. The title-page of this specific auction catalogue mentions four collectors: A. Hoynck Van Papendrecht, Th. Lantsheer, A.A. Hulshoff and W. Badon Ghyben.
The most likely candidate in this case is Anthony Hoynck van Papendrecht (1819-1877). He had been a member of the House of Representatives between 1854 and 1866 and addressed topics in the fields of trade, economics and colonial affairs. He entered the House of Representatives in the same year that Noorziek took up his position as librarian. Noordziek might have been aware that Hoynck van Papendrecht had a copy of the Wealth of Nations in his possession, or seems to have been alerted after the former member of parliament had passed. The acquisition lists of 1878 show that it fit right into the acquisition of a range of contemporary economical literature, but was in fact the only antiquarian acquisition in this field.
Recent publications about the Historical Collection
The news on the provenance of the first edition of the Wealth of Nations is just one of three recent publications about the Historical Collection of the House of Representatives. It shows that the project that initialy ran from 2018 until 2020 is still delivering results. A forty-page article about the history of the collection was published in the Yearbook for Dutch Book History in October 2021. It is available in open access at the website of the publisher AUP.
Ultimately there are stories connected to every single book in the collection. The latest issue of De Boekenwereld explores the history of a notorious pamphlet from 1907, De Practische Anarchist [‘The Practical Anarchist’]. There is every reason to keep an eye out for more publications in the near future!