Twain, Bronte, Whitman: Collecting Personality or Personality Collecting?

Part of the fun of watching an entire library go up for sale is that it lets us learn about the person who assembled it. One or two pieces is a glimpse in one direction from a small window; an entire collection is a sprawling vista on a clear day. The Copley Library Sale at Sothebys was just such an experience.

James S. Copley was the heir to a newspaper empire, now fallen. During the 1960s and early '70s, he poured his personality into collecting. He died in 1973 and his wife and curator continued his mission until she died. Now the Copley Press, which owns the library, is selling it. The first sale (Americana) was in April. This is the second.

What can come off as miscellany in fact manages a theme. Copley's taste was certainly eclectic (he collected Americana, Science, Literature), but it was centered around the personalities of the people he admired—Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. Copley cared about their estimation of themselves and of the people around them; he was also buying at a time when things that today are nearly impossible to find were uncommon but findable.

It is frequently debated why some important people are ubiquitous on the market and others have left us so little. To wit: Have you ever seen a letter of Charlotte Brontë? We've seen only five in more than 30 years, but Copley managed to put three in one collection. And they're rich. One from 1848 reads, "Thought and conscience are or ought to be free." This one sold for $68,500. Sadly, another Bronte letter was pulled from auction (the audience is typically not told why) and the third passed (that means it failed to meet the reserve set by the seller). This last one had an old dealer notation on it, giving away a previous purchase price of $17.50 in 1921. The current estimate was $30,000-$50,000.

Another prime example: Walt Whitman, perhaps America's first homegrown iconic poet, is widely read and studied. But did you realize that Walt Whitman was writing home with news of the Civil War to his mother? Copley did. In a letter from 1864, Whitman writes, "Grant is very secretive indeed—he bothers himself very little about sending news even to the President or Stanton" ($11,875).

Other highlights: A rare composing manuscript of Gershwin for "Clap yo' hands" sold for $28,750. William Randolph Hearst's salacious love letters to Marion Davies sold for $40,625. A revealing quotation of F. Scott Fitzgerald from the final sentences of The Great Gatsby sold for $98,500. A letter by Sun Yat Sen in which he writes, "The first emperor of the Mings was the first man that restored the country to the Chinese, and I am the second," included in a larger lot, sold for $21,250. A letter by Tchaikovsky, in which he denies that England is a land without music and expresses his belief that some day there will be a musical Shakespeare, sold for $17,500. In each of these cases, I learned something about the writer. And perhaps so did Copley.

And then there was Twain. Toward the end, when we arrived at the few hundred or so pieces signed by Twain, the buzz in the room was palpable and the crowd partially changed guard. In came the Samuel Clemens collectors and the institutions looking for his material. And why wouldn't someone take notice? You could tell the story of Twain's life through these pieces. The highlight of the sale was surely the memoir he wrote about his family, in which he discursively and passionately discusses his daughter, servants, emotions, and experiences. The estimate on this was $120,000-$160,000. The final price was nearly $242,500—an auction record for a manuscript signed by Twain.

The rest of the sale also gave us the chance to live inside Twain's skin. Copley had a photograph of Clemens' only son, inscribed by the author ($10,625). I shuddered that Twain had felt it incumbent on him to write a letter to his future father-in-law justifying his character and supplying references ($25,000). "I think all my references can say that I never did anything mean, false or criminal." Happily, I don't believe my father-in-law gets the Sothebys catalog.

There were also letters on marriage, religion, and free speech; references to many of his greatest works, manuscripts, aphorisms, signed photographs, and a bust were also included. In spite of the dizzying quantity of material, prices for the better material were generally strong.

Finally, if we had forgotten that Copley collected Americana, the sale ended with one piece, a copy of the Declaration of Independence—an uncommon early printing from mid-July 1776—which sold for $572,500 (estimate $600,000-$800,000).

So would Copley have been proud that his taste and vision were vindicated? Not everything sold. Two uncommon and interesting letters of Emily Dickinson passed—they were estimated at $35,000-$50,000, which might have dissuaded some buyers. (Some day I should do a study of the strategy behind auction estimates.) And an important manuscript by Einstein on the rise of Fascism did not meet reserve (estimate $40,000-$60,000) either. But overall the better material found new homes, with a new generation of collectors to carry the flame.

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