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June 2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Roxburghe Club, the world’s oldest and most prestigious bibliophilic society. The John Rylands Library has a particular association with the Club, in that we possess the very book whose sale inspired the Club’s foundation.

On 16 June 1812 the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin and a coterie of fellow collectors and bibliophiles dined together, on the eve of the sale of the Duke of Roxburghe’s celebrated library. The Roxburghe sale is famous in the annals of book collecting, for the Duke’s copy (then thought to be unique) of the 1471 Valdarfer edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron fetched an astonishing sum: George Spencer, Marquess of Blandford (later the 5th Duke of Marlborough) paid £2,260 for it, against fierce competition from his cousin and fellow bibliomaniac, George John, 2nd Earl Spencer. This was a record price for a single book that was not exceeded until Bernard Quaritch paid £4,950 for the 1459 Mainz Psalter at the Syston Park sale in 1884.

Lord Spencer would have the last laugh, though. When financial difficulties forced Marlborough to sell his library seven years later, Spencer snapped up the Valdarfer Boccaccio for only £918. The volume passed to Enriqueta Rylands when she purchased the Spencer Collection from the 2nd Earl’s grandson in 1892. It is now one of the most important printed books in the John Rylands Library (see below).

Valdarfer Boccaccio

The Roxburghe copy of Boccaccio, Decameron (Venice: Christopherus Valdarfer, 1471), ff. 120v-121r. Pressmark 17659.

Roxburghe coat of arms

Detail of the Duke of Roxburghe’s coat of arms, gilt-stamped inside the front cover of the Valdarfer Boccaccio, 1471. Pressmark 17659.

Gauffered top edge of the Valdarfer Boccaccio.

Gauffered top edge of the Valdarfer Boccaccio.

Didbin and his fellow diners decided to mark the anniversary of the Roxburghe sale with another dinner on 17 June 1813, and thus was born the Roxburghe Club, which continues to meet on or around that date every year. Membership is limited to forty, all of whom are distinguished collectors and/or experts in bibliography and book history. Each member is expected to produce a book at his or her own expense, handsomely printed and finely bound, for presentation to fellow members. The John Rylands Library holds a complete set of Roxburghe Club publications, many of the volumes being the personal copies of members.

We wish the Roxburghe Club well in its bicentenary, and we offer a toast to another two hundred years of fine books and fine dining.

To mark the bicentenary, the Valdarfer Boccaccio will feature in a “One Hour/One Object” session at the John Rylands Library on Monday 18 June, 12.00-13.00. Booking is essential; please contact our Customer Services Team on 0161 306 0555 or jrul.events@manchester.ac.uk.