On 24 April 1895, while Wilde was in Holloway prison awaiting trial, the entire contents of his house in Tite Street, Chelsea were sold at the demand of his creditors. The Marquess of Queensberry, whom Wilde had unsuccesfully prosecuted for libel, had been awarded £600 legal costs, and it was his insistence on payment that led to the sale of Wilde’s goods.
Wilde’s effects were ‘sold by Auction, by Mr. Bullock, on the premises at one o’clock’. The cover of the sale catalogue advertised the choicest items on offer-‘portraits of celebrities’, Carlyle’s writing table’, ‘Old Blue and white China’ and a ‘library of valuable books’. Wilde had accumulated this collection of books since his adolescence, transporting the volumes between the various bachelor residences he occupied before he settled at 16 Tite Street in 1885 with his wife. There, he had set out the books on the shelves of his luxurious ground-floor library.
At the auction, Wilde’s ‘House Beautiful’ was plundered by a frenzied crowd of curiosity hunters who had come in search of mementoes of the ‘monster’. After his arrest on 5 April, on charges of ‘sodomy’ and ‘gross indecency’, Wilde had become the most notorious figure in England. During the sale, the white front door of No.16 was left open, giving the jostling crowds access to the house and licence to loot it. People pushed each other in a frantic attempt to help themselves to the finest items< some forced the locks on the rooms that had been shut up. A scuffle b roke out between a group of people and a number of Wilde's friends. The police were called in to quell the disturbance. Inside the library, just to the right of the house's entrance, the auctioneer's men took Wilde's books down from the shelves, then carted them out to the auctioneer. The sale was conducted right in front of the library window. Members of the public crowded the room, eyeing bargains and perhaps pocketing volumes that caught their aye. Piles of letters and manuscripts, that had been emptied out of Wilde's mahogany desk before it was carried outside, were strewn across the floor. Bidders pored over them, and riffled through Wilde's books, in a prurient search fro references to his 'crimes'. Wilde's large cast of the bust of Hermes, the greek God of liars and thieves, looked on at the mayhem from the corner of the room. In front of the house there was a pandemonium. The auctioneer was surrounded by a sea of bidders, comprised, in the main, of antique dealers and second-hand-book dealers who had come in search of bargains. They were not dissapointed. They had the opportunity of acquiring private letters and manuscripts, even though the public sale of these was illegal: they also had the chance of picking up Wilde's beautiful furniture and books at knock-down prices. The books were hastily bundled together and sold as job lots. Lot 114 consisted of 'about' one hundred unidentified French novels. Extremely personal items were auctioned off, such as first editions of Wilde's works that he had inbscribed to his wife and two sons. Wilde especially lamented the loss of his sumptuous éditions de luxe, and the ‘collection of presentation volumes’ he had received from ‘almost every poet of my time’. He also deeply regretted the dispersal of the ‘beautiful bound editions of his father’s and mother’s works’, and the ‘wonderful array’ of ‘book prizes’ that had been awarded to him as a student.
The volumes were sold for a song. The first lots fetched derisory sums, the last next to nothing. The hundred or so French novels that comprised lot 114 (which must have cost Wilde around five shillings each) went for the grand total of 35 shillings. Twenty-five beautifully bound volumes of the classics were knocked down at the price of an ordinary Victorian novel. The auctioneers’ men grouped the books indiscriminately, with little consideration of their value. Unique poresentation copies of Wilde’s own work were sold along with volumes on angling.
A surviving copy of this catalogue, which lists some of Wilde’s books, and which was annotated by a bidder, suggests that Wilde’s library contained around two thousand volumes, along with numerous magazines, periodicals, scrapbooks, photograph albums and parcels of manuscripts. The entire collection was sold for about £130-roughly the same as Wilde’s expenditure on food, drink, cabs and hotel rooms.
Most of the books went the way of a large paper edition of Wilde’s fairy tale collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales , which bearss the inscription of the book dealer ‘H. Parsons of Brompton Road’. Parsons acquired it as part of lot 53, which included eight other extremely rare editions of Wilde’s works. He paid £8 and doubtless sold them on for at least five times the price.
Wilde hoped that his friends would buy some of the books on his behalf, but it is highly unlikely that they were able to out bid the dealers. A few did, however, manage to acquire certain volumes for him, when the dealers put them on the open market. One friend bought several books which he came across by chance in a shop on Chelsea’s Queen Road, with the intention of restoring them to their former owner. Other acquaintances, horrified by the idea that Wilde’s cherished volumes (some of them were adorned with extremely personal inscriptions) were being displayed in booksellers’ windows, purchased and eventually returned them to Wilde.
The overwhelming majority of the books were bought from dealers by individuals with no conection to Wilde, and, in time, sold on again to be scattered throughout the world. Wilde’s Tite Street library, which had taken over thirty years to build, was destroyed in a single afternoon.
When Wilde learned the fate of his books he was inconsolable.
Oscar’s Books. A journey around the library of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Wright.