A bavelaar, according to the Great Van Dale Dutch dictionary, is an ‘artistically sculpted representation in wood or ivory of a group or an interior on a very small scale’.
The Museum Meermanno owns four of these objects, which owe their name to the Leiden woodcarver Cornelis Bavelaar (1747-1830). One of these miniatures is quite extraordinary: it shows the auction in 1824 at which Baron van Westreenen purchased books and manuscripts from the estate of his second cousin Johan Meerman for well over eleven thousand guilders.
Meerman had bequeathed his library to the city of The Hague, along with his residence and his art collection. However the city refused the bequest because the costs of maintenance were thought to be too high, and thus the collection was put up for auction.
The Meerman auction, which lasted four weeks, caused a lot of excitement in the world of libraries and book collectors. Rarely had so many rare and valuable works been offered at one single auction. The records note more than 150 buyers, who spent well over 131,000 guilders in total – a sensational sum in those days. More than half of the books and manuscripts were sold to foreign antiquarian booksellers and collectors, especially those from Great Britain. Among the Dutch buyers were the academic libraries of Leiden, Utrecht and Franeker.
Baron van Westreenen was good at drawing. During the auction he made a sketch, which he later gave to Bavelaar. The latter made an initial design, which the baron checked and then returned to him with a list of criticisms. These all concerned details: two chairs should be added – ‘one empty and on the other a statue seated with a sheet of paper in front of it’ – and so on. The baron would always make another sketch to explain what he had in mind.
One can imagine that this was more or less what the auction of the Meerman collection in 1824 looked like. The auctioneer is sitting in front of the bay window; an assistant carrying a pile of books walks in from the adjoining room. The carving is one of the oldest non-caricature images of a book auction.