Bidders at the fourth and final auction of the now-defunct James S. Copley Library, held at Sotheby’s in New York City on May 20, did what they had done at the previous three sales. They paid big money for a few choice items, underpaid for others, and sat on their hands for far too much of the rest.
Curiously, the Sotheby’s catalog cover said “Third Selection,” not “Fourth.” Obviously a typo, but one observer said, “I think it’s a metaphor for the whole enterprise.”
Among the items bidders paid megabucks for at earlier auctions was a letter by Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence whose correspondence is scarce. That one went for $722,500 to a private collector — unnamed by Sotheby’s — who, other bidders say, was a heavy buyer at all four sales. Then there was the unpublished Mark Twain manuscript, bought for $242,500 by an agent for UC Berkeley. The price established a new world auction record for any handwritten manuscript by Twain. An archive of papers relating to Sir Henry Strachey, a British statesman of the American Revolutionary War period, sold for $602,500 to another institution — the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And, at the final sale, 155 pages of notes taken by John Lansing Jr. at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fetched $902,500. The buyer, philanthropist and former investment banker Roger Hertog, has announced that he will donate the pages to the New-York Historical Society.
All told, the sales reaped $11,054,654 for David C. Copley. Not a bad payday, except, according to the original press release issued by Sotheby’s over a year ago, the library’s approximately 2000 letters, documents, manuscripts, rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, maps, etc., were supposed to fetch more than $15 million.
What happened? For one thing, it was simply too much material for the small, historical-documents market to absorb. Take, for example, the Twain material, which included dozens of handwritten letters, many of which went for bargain prices. Kevin Mac Donnell of Austin, Texas, a Twain collector and scholar who owns the rare-book firm that bears his name, said he thought the correspondence results reflected several factors. First, the state of the economy (“the times in which we live,” in his words). Second, the letters’ relative lack of freshness. “Nearly all these letters have appeared at auction within the last 20 years,” he said. “For example, all the letters to [Twain’s daughters] Jean and Susy and Clara were part of a big batch of about a hundred discovered in a stamp shop in California about two decades ago.” Third and perhaps most importantly, he attributed the results to something he calls “letter fatigue.”
“I think that when this many letters come up all at once, without being broken up by books or broadsides or other things, that’s just an awful lot of letters,” he said. “Of course, if you’re a Twain collector, letter fatigue doesn’t set in. And if you’re only there [at the auction] to buy one or two things, it doesn’t [set in], either. But I think for most others, that many letters all at once is kind of overwhelming.”
Mac Donnell said he bought multiple lots of letters written by Twain to his publishers Frank and Elisha Bliss. And he did pay a premium $10,625 for a group of three letters to Elisha. But his bill for a group of four to Elisha’s son Frank came to a piddling $1500. “That’s getting pretty cheap per page,” Mac Donnell said.
At the same sale that featured the Twain items, a series of pen-and-ink celebrity portraits from the 1920s and 1930s by artist Robert Kastor went on the block. One of F. Scott Fitzgerald, inscribed by the author with the final two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, sold for a whopping $98,000.
But 13 others achieved comparably minimal amounts. Among the lowest priced, at $1250, was a signed and inscribed portrait of Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Its buyer was a dealer, who quickly doubled his money by selling it to another dealer. But then that dealer consigned it to an auction of African-Americana at Swann Galleries in New York. At that sale, it sold for $31,200 — a gain of $28,700 (minus Swann’s commission) for the savvy second dealer.
Maybe David Copley — or, that is, Gurr Johns Inc., which was acting as his agent — couldn’t have been expected to find the exactly right auction house for each item from his father’s library. But Sotheby’s should have set more realistic values on some of the things that ended up being passed. (An item’s value is reflected in its presale estimate range, and an estimate range, in turn, determines the reserve — the price below which the auction house will not sell, usually two-thirds of the lower estimate number.) A cache of Dwight D. Eisenhower letters to his wife Mamie, offered at the final sale, is a case in point. Estimated at $400,000 to $600,000, the archive “got no action at all,” said dealer William S. Reese of New Haven, Connecticut.
“It seemed to the trade like a very big number” for Dwight’s words to Mamie, said Reese. “I guess the great Dwight D. Eisenhower collector isn’t out there. I was surprised by the estimate on that. It seems to me that the documents that are going to make the big money in the end are not going to be about the personal lives of these individuals but about the great moments in history.”
Speaking generally, he said, “It’s inexplicable why some things were estimated and reserved the way they were.” The values put on the best of the early-California material seemed particularly ill-advised. One of the earliest surviving maps of the Port of San Diego, drawn in pen-and-ink in 1782 by Juan Pantoja y Arriaga, sold to dealer W. Graham Arader III for $68,500 — on an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. The first census and directory of the missions in Alta California, written in the hand of Father Junípero Serra, estimated at $150,000 to $200,000, did not sell at all. Neither did a 76-piece archive of Mexican president Benito Juárez, overvalued at $75,000 to $100,000.
The formally stated reason for dissolving the Copley Library, according to Gurr Johns, was the institution’s “wish to share” its historical wealth “with a broader audience.” But in the end there were very few participants. Reese, who attended all four sales, consistently bought 20 or 25 percent by cash value, either for clients or for stock. Among major lots, he bought the Copley Library’s Declaration of Independence broadside for $572,500 on an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. (He also executed the University of Michigan’s winning bid for the $602,500 Strachey papers.) The private collector of the Button Gwinnett letter bought even more. When the majority of any collection at auction goes to two people, it’s not a good thing.
Other no-sales in the fourth and final auction include an Abraham Lincoln letter ($60,000/$90,000); a couple of John Hancocks ($25,000/$35,000 and $12,000/$18,000, respectively); a Teddy Roosevelt ($5000/$7000); and materials relating to the assassination of President James A. Garfield ($50,000/$80,000).
The trade anticipates that unsold lots from all four sales — with their estimates dialed down — will be reoffered by Sotheby’s in the future. (Indeed, some Emily Dickinson letters sold at a general fine books and manuscripts sale on June 17 for $12,500, although the estimate was a still-overconfident $20,000 to $30,000.) One thing that can’t change, however, is the material’s condition.
“A lot of [it] has faltered because of its physical condition,” said Reese. Condition has “been a factor all along. The whole nature of historical manuscripts is a sense of their immediacy. You’re holding the letter that Washington wrote or Jefferson wrote. And if that thing has been washed, treated, and stuck back together, it doesn’t have the same immediacy as something that’s in nice shape.” Eighteenth-century rag paper is sturdy stuff, more durable than many textiles. “But I think there was a tendency in the 1930s through the ’60s to overrestore things,” Reese explained. “As in furniture today, the modern taste says, ‘This has been just too monkeyed with.’”
This final Copley sale included a few nonpaper items, too — for example, a chair that Lincoln may have sat in; a plaster bust of his head; his bronze life mask; and his portrait, by Douglas Volk, reproduced on the catalog’s cover. All of these sold.
Three other paintings that hung on the Copley Library walls, likewise, went on the block. Two were 19th-century portraits of old, gray men and failed to sell. The third was of none other than James S. Copley himself.
This picture was displayed at Sotheby’s headquarters during auction previews. It would not be sold, according to senior specialist Selby Kiffer, who said it would “go back to the family,” or words to that effect. But when I got to the last lot on the last page of the final catalog, there it was. Painted in tempera on Masonite in 1967 by Peter Hurd (1904–1984), it was offered with a $20,000 to $30,000 estimate. No one bought it. I can’t be the only one wondering what David Copley will do with his father’s portrait now.