Raab in Forbes: The MLK Bible and Nobel Prize

What's Really Behind The Potential Sale Of Martin Luther King's Bible And Nobel Prize?

Throngs of interested bidders, filling a major metropolitan auction house, waiting in eager anticipation for the sale of a sacred religious book owned by a national hero. The price would go high, well above expectations and sell to a well-connected historical document dealer. The price would go that much higher because it came with the most stellar of provenance. The heirs themselves were selling it, heirs still adorned with that great last name.

That name? Not King, but Washington. The document: George Washington’s handwritten book of prayers, which sold for $1,250 in 1891, a huge sum at that time.

News reports seem to be building exponentially about the potential sale of two items by the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. One is Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize medal, which, according to the youngest King child and King Center CEO, Bernice King, has never been on display.  The other is a Bible owned by Dr. King, not his only Bible, but one that seems to have been with him for years. He has not signed it, but President Obama has. The current President used it for his second Inauguration.

This issue, one in a long line for the King family, burst onto the national scene Thursday after Bernice King went public with her predicament. As she explained it to me, she and her brothers, Martin Luther King, III, and Dexter King, are the only voting members of the Board of the King Estate. She received a letter that specified that a vote would be taken on selling this material privately. As was reported elsewhere, the letter read, in part, “The purpose of this special meeting is to discuss and vote on whether to offer for purchase at a private sale of the Nobel Peace Prize and the King Bible. And if the vote is to proceed with such a sale, to identify the person to whom. Within two days of the affirmative vote, the Nobel Peace Prize and the King Bible shall be physically delivered.” A “private sale” usually means either that the item will be sold through a dealer or directly to a private party. It is hypothetically possible that a third party may have already approached the seller with an offer. The identity of the prospective buyer as a “person” would seem to rule out an institution.

The meeting took place over the phone, Bernice voted against, but was outnumbered by her brothers. Although she would not tell me where the items are now, her brothers appear convinced she has them. They are now asking a judge to force the return of the Bible and the medal. The rest will play out in court, probably generating yet more undesired publicity.

Where have these pieces been? “They have pretty much been in the same location for several years,” Bernice told me. “The Bible as you know at one point… was on display at the King Center before President Obama requested the use of daddy’s Bible, or should I say one of his Bibles…. It was actually signed by President Obama either the day of or the day after the Inauguration and returned to Atlanta. Obviously it was not put back on display at that particular time.”

Would Dr. King’s Bible and medal garner similar attention as when General Washington’s heirs sold his effects? Likely. A printed copy of the US Constitution owned by George Washington and containing his annotations sold recently for $10 million and is now at Mount Vernon. And the medal? Francis Crick’s heirs sold his Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA recently for approximately $2 million.

Could Dr. King’s materials beat these on the open market? With the medal, almost certainly. The Bible might, but it is a question mark. It is not his only known Bible, it is apparently not signed, and the presence of the current President’s signature might encourage higher bidding by some who love the association and discourage bidding at all by others who think it muddies the yet clearer association with Dr. King alone.

Judging by the Internet and media reaction, people are upset. But is this fair?

Are people more upset that this material might be sold at all or that it is happening in such an acrimonious manner? If the former, consider this: it is not the exception but the rule that eventually, whether in the short or long term, items owned by the descendants of famous people leave the family, either by donation or sale. Washington’s heirs, in the same sale as the Prayer Book, sold hundreds of items that had been passed down. Franklin Roosevelt’s heirs sold many of his personal artifacts. Likewise, Nixon’s family sold his papers, Einstein’s family did his, Eisenhower’s family did, and so did countless others. Many literary masters sell their papers to research institutions for high prices, and this practice is ongoing right now, privately and by countless venues. Some donate; many sell. Many of these sales are handled with or by autograph dealers, such as the sale by our firm, The Raab Collection, of some materials belonging to the families of President Benjamin Harrison, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Some go to auction, such as the Francis Crick family with his medal or, earlier, the family of Martin Luther King (more on that later). In very few cases does the family sell the material without an expert intermediary, such as an agent, an auction, or a dealer.  Why might heirs sell their family treasures?  These issues can be complex and involve multiple family members.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to sell, nor for these items to be bought,” Bernice told me, and she is far from the only person who feels this way. It is an understandable sentiment. But the reality is that there are very few other long-term outcomes except sale or direct donation, and even in the latter case there is usually substantial financial benefit, as a large tax write-off might be a factor.

Moreover, these sales or donations often benefit the public. Buyers can donate their purchases or lend them for extended periods of time, as has David Rubenstein, who has bought countless historical documents, most recently the Bay Psalm book, the oldest printed book in British North America, for approximately $14 million. An era of collecting philanthropy is at hand, and sometimes private buyers or angel donors can do more for a piece than can the original owners, even if they are family heirlooms. Moreover, sometimes the current owners, who can be descendants, are not able or willing to care for the material properly themselves. Often, someone will come to us and explain that they fear that their children or heirs simply lack the interest in the material or lack the space to ensure their safety. So they sell it.

Based on the letter reportedly sent to Bernice King, the Estate aims to sell the piece privately. This is a contrast to their last sale of Dr. King’s material, which eventually went to Morehouse College by private treaty but not before it was widely advertised for public sale. At the last minute, a group of people, led by the Mayor of Atlanta, raised enough money to pull it from the auction block and buy it for $32 million.  It is now at Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater. The King children split this sum. This was a public relations nightmare for the family. Perhaps it is an effort to avoid such negative publicity that a private sale is deemed preferable. A private sale does offer the opportunity to pick a potential buyer. The King family could, for instance, agree to sell it only to an institution that will display it, though the language of the letter sent to Board members seems to preclude that. An auction would not allow such flexibility. In any event, if discretion was their goal, they fell well short. Clearly this has already garnered more public attention than the brothers would have preferred.

But although the public is focused on their case, their predicament is not so uncommon. Descendants are often left with items of monetary value, with little of their own financial resources or, though this is not the case here, resources with which to care for them. Moreover, they carry with them not only the burden of shepherding these historical treasures but also the moral burden that comes with the ownership of things that have themselves moral meaning to the nation.  Even the closest of families often have a hard time agreeing on such things and shouldering such a long-term, heavy burden can rip families apart. Where there is acrimony, many handle it behind closed doors. Most are also not as famous nor do they carry with them the role of standard-bearer of an ongoing racial struggle. The King family disagreement is a high profile exception, and this certainly would be easier if they agreed internally to keep or agreed to sell.

But assuming, as many have done publicly and with great judgment, that such a sale by a famous historical family is abnormal goes contrary to the facts; and rushing to judgment about the King family predicament, without considering the burden these children of Dr. King carry, is not productive. Are we holding the descendants of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a different standard than we once held the heirs of General and President George Washington?

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