April 11, 2017
First English-language edition of Crime and Punishment sells for close to nothing at auction, then sells for a whole lot at auction
by Chad Felix
Recently, a first English-language edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was found in a box of assorted, unidentified books that had been sold at an auction for a mere £14. The classic Russian novel therein was published in English, in London, as part of the Vizetelly’s One-Volume Novels series, in 1886.
It was a chance discovery. The chance discoverer, a woman from Lancashire, told the Guardian’s Sian Cain that “I didn’t really take much notice of this box, I didn’t have much time, and just wrote down £20 as my maximum bid — it was just a box of general books, I didn’t think there was anything particularly exciting.” She went on to note that she hadn’t spotted the book before bidding, “and even if [she] had [she] probably wouldn’t have taken much notice — editions of classic novels turn up in auction job lots all the time, and are generally only worth giving to Oxfam.”
Thankfully, before sending the score off to that charity, the winner, who wishes to remain anonymous, spent a little time online, looking up recent sales of Crime and Punishment. When she happened upon a story about a sale of an American first edition of the title for $12,000 (£9,000), she contacted Chris Albury, of Dominic Winter Auctioneers, who promptly lost his shit:
I nearly fell off my chair when I received a blurry image and a brief description of this book in an email valuation one morning. I knew it was important and rare straight away but didn’t fully appreciate quite how hen’s-teeth rare it was until I did some further research.
Upon further consideration, the extremely rare edition (Albury has encountered fewer than ten copies worldwide) was deemed legit, and in good condition, too.
Her purchase verified, and her financial need undeniable (she’s having some repairs done to her house), the purchaser took the book to auction where it fetched £13,500 (about $16,766), even more than she’d hoped.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.