For Janeites, the Austen First Edition Thrill-o-Meter is calibrated something like this:
Biggest Thrill: Austen novel first edition owned by Austen herself Second-Biggest Thrill: Austen novel first edition owned by someone Austen knew Third-Biggest Thrill: Austen novel first edition owned by someone kind of cool Fourth-Biggest Thrill: Austen novel first edition
Books in the third and fourth of these categories come on the market with some regularity, as blog readers will recall. (For instance, see here, here, and here.) Books in the top category – Austen-owned Austen firsts – don’t exist, at least as far as I know.
But the stratospheric prices such books would command if they did exist can be guessed from a piece of news that broke last week about a book in the second category – an Austen first edition owned by an Austen friend.
According to London rare-book dealer Peter Harrington, a first edition of Emma presented by Austen to her friend Anne Sharp sold over the summer* for £375,000 (about $416,000) – the highest price a printed Austen book has ever brought.
The three-volume edition is inscribed “From the author” – not, alas, by Austen’s own hand, but by her publisher, who sent it to Sharp at Austen’s direction. Sharp, who was a governess in the household of Austen’s wealthy older brother Edward Austen Knight when the two women first met, wrote her own name inside each volume.
The Sharp presentation copy of Emma is far from unknown or underappreciated: It appears to have set a record for Austen prices every time it has changed hands, going for £180,000 (nearly $200,000, at today’s exchange rate) in a 2008 auction and for £325,000 (about $360,000 today) in a private sale just two years later.
Fortunately for us less well-heeled Janeites, the latest owner is no book hog. “The buyer of this unique copy of Austen’s Emma, who resides in the U.S., expressed his wish for the work to stay in England and asked if we could recommend a suitable institute or museum that would be happy to receive the book as a deposit,” Peter Harrington owner Pom Harrington says in a press release.
Chawton House, the research library/tourist attraction located in the Elizabethan manor house once owned by Edward Austen Knight, was the lucky winner of this prize. The book will go on display there next year, to coincide with Chawton House’s twentieth anniversary.
* Although the date isn't in Peter Harrington's press materials, a spokeswoman for the dealer told me the sale took place in the summer of 2022.