Thomas Phillipps and Alfred Chester Beatty

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was one of the great manuscript collectors of the 20th century. His collections now form the basis of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Almost inevitably, he played a part in the story of the dispersal of the huge manuscript collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps.

Beatty’s acquisitions of former Phillipps manuscripts were discussed by Christopher De Hamel in a Book Collector article in 1991. De Hamel identifies 51 such manuscripts; the actual number is likely to have been at least 60.


Most of the manuscripts acquired by Beatty were bought directly from Phillipps’s grandson, Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick. They were acquired in four groups between 1920 and 1925:

  • 27 were acquired from Fenwick in December 1920. This purchase included one manuscript (Ph. 14122), which was bought by Mrs Edith Beatty separately. The amount paid was £12,454 (including £500 for Mrs Beatty’s manuscript)
  • Eight were acquired from Fenwick in February 1923. The amount paid was £3,320.
  • Nine were acquired from Fenwick in August 1924. The amount paid was £5,105.
  • Eight were acquired from Fenwick by Edith Beatty in November 1925, as a gift for her husband. The amount paid was £21,800.

The fourth group is the most interesting. They included three of the top fifteen manuscripts listed in Beatty’s earlier notes on the “order in which Mr F places manuscripts” (in Beatty’s notebook on Phillipps manuscripts, now owned by Sotheby’s London):

2. Statius, Thebaid (Ph. 1798) – bought for £7,000 (earlier described by Beatty as “a beautiful book … of uniformly high grade – The book is not for sale except at a high price £3000 – £5000”)

6. Dictys Cretensis (Ph. 3502) – bought for £7,000 (Beatty’s earlier comment: “1st Visit talked about £5000”)

13. Ferdinand, Italy XV [i.e., Epistolae of Francesco Barbaro, once in the Aragonese Royal Library] (Ph. 6640) – bought for £3,000

Ph. 1798: Statius, Thebaid

Ph. 1798: Statius, Thebaid

In total, these 52 purchases cost the Beattys £42,679. Mrs Beatty paid much higher prices than her husband; his most expensive purchases (all in 1920) were £2,000 each for Ph. 4259 and Ph. 4769, and £1,500 for Ph. 2165. Subsequently, the most he spent on a single item was £880.

There were also a further eight manuscripts which were not acquired directly from Fenwick.

Three of these (Ph. 3734, 21163 and 21642) were bought from Quaritch in late 1912, and one (Ph. 2803) was bought at a Sotheby’s auction in July 1921. They had originally been sold by Fenwick at Sotheby’s auctions in 1896, 1898 and 1903.

For three other manuscripts (Ph. 345, 629 and 3726), the method and date of acquisition remain unknown. One (Ph. 345) was in Beatty’s hands by 1928 at the latest, and another (Ph. 3726) before 1933. 

Beatty’s final purchase was one of Phillipps’ great treasures: the Armenian Gospel Book (Ph. 15364) with which he was photographed in 1860. It was bought from the Robinson brothers in 1948.

Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1860

Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1860


Beatty offered 24 of his Phillipps manuscripts for sale at Sotheby’s as part of his great auctions of 1932 and 1933. Ten were offered in the 1932 sale; two of these were bought-in. A further fourteen were offered and sold in the 1933 auction.

Three manuscripts were exchanged with, or sold to, the collector A.S. Yahuda in the 1920s and 1930s (Ph. 345, 385 and 437).

Edith Beatty sold at least one of the manuscripts in 1952 to the Morgan Library (Ph. 2165).

Therefore, 34 must have been in the Chester Beatty Library when it first opened to the public in Dublin in 1953.

Seventeen of these were then offered for sale in the Sotheby’s auctions after Beatty’s death. Eight were in the 1968 sale, and nine in the 1969 sale. The latter group included one of the manuscripts bought-in 37 years earlier (Ph. 10190).

Twelve former Phillipps manuscripts appear on the list of Western manuscripts exhibited at the Chester Beatty Library in November 1967. These were the manuscripts which remained in the Library after Beatty’s death in accordance with his will – as set out in the typewritten list certified by Richard James Hayes dated 22 April 1968 (copy in Bodleian Library, R. Pal. 6. 6a).

Today, thirteen former Phillipps manuscripts are still in the Chester Beatty Library. They consist of the twelve Western manuscripts on the exhibition list, and the Armenian Gospels bought in 1948. One of the manuscripts bought-in at the 1932 sale is still in Chester Beatty Library (Ph. 132).

The time and method of disposal of four other manuscripts remains unknown (Ph. 629, 3734, 14122, and 21642).

Current locations

Thirteen of the manuscripts are in the Chester Beatty Library. Of these, six were bought from Fenwick in 1920, six from Fenwick in 1925 by Edith Beatty, and one from the Robinsons in 1948 (the Armenian Gospels).

The current locations of 34 of the other manuscripts are known: United States 18, Italy 6, United Kingdom 6, Switzerland 2, Germany 1, and Israel 1.

The known institutional owners are: Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma 6, British Library 4, Harvard University 4, Morgan Library 4, Walters Art Museum 3, Bodmer Collection 2, New York Public Library 2, Yale University 2, Getty Museum 1, Boston Public Library 1, Lincoln College Oxford 1, National Library of Israel 1, Princeton University 1, Sir Paul Getty Library 1, and Stuttgart Landesbibliothek 1.

One manuscript (Ph. 2506) is known to have been broken up after it was sold in 1969. At least 16 individual leaves from it have passed through the sale rooms in the last 45 years, and three of these have been bought back by the Chester Beatty Library.

The current location of twelve manuscripts remains unknown. They include one (Ph. 2251) which was exported to France after its sale in 1975.

Other well-known collectors who have owned these manuscripts at some stage after they were sold by Beatty have included: St John Hornby, Major J.R. Abbey, Philip Hofer, Eric Millar, William Scheide, Martin Schøyen, Peter Ludwig, Sir Paul Getty and A.S. Yahuda.


Here is a nodegoat visualisation of the provenance histories of 21 of the Phillipps-Beatty manuscripts:

nodegoat: provenance histories of 21 Phillipps-Beatty manuscripts

nodegoat: provenance histories of 21 Phillipps-Beatty manuscripts



My thanks to Dr Laura Cleaver (Trinity College Dublin) for convening the recent workshop “Migrant Manuscripts: the Western Manuscripts of the Chester Beatty Collection and Twentieth-Century Provenance Studies”, to the staff of the Chester Beatty Library and to Dr Mara Hoffman of Sotheby’s.


1 thought on “Thomas Phillipps and Alfred Chester Beatty

  1. John Burke

    You may be interested to learn that two leaves from the bible formerly Phillipps MS 2506 (subsequently Chester Beatty MS W 173) have been at the University of Melbourne since 1976. They contain II Maccabees 6:29-8:8 and Jeremiah 15:17-17:27. As I have found no related paperwork in Melbourne, I am trying to document their provenance by other means.

    As you doubtless know, this bible was sold at Sotheby’s on 24 June 1969 (lot 57) to the London antiquarian bookseller, Alan Thomas. It is more than likely that the University of Melbourne acquired its two leaves from Alan Thomas, but as yet I have no documentary proof.

    One of our leaves has pencil marks in the bottom right corner indicating that it was purchased by Maggs in March 1975 for £6.00.

    I would be very grateful if you were able to assist with any information concerning these leaves between June 1969 and March 1976. Information concerning the current whereabouts of other leaves from the same manuscript would also be most welcome (I note that the Chester Beatty Library has re-purchased three leaves — which parts of the bible to they contain?)
    Yours sincerely
    John Burke
    Senior Fellow, The University of Melbourne


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