Highlighting Women’s Contributions

Swann’s sale celebrating women’s achievements achieves strong results.
Courtesy of Swann Galleries

Guild of Women Binders, exhibition binding of A.F. Pollard’s Henry VIII, London, 1902. Sold for $12,350 (left). Sarah E. Farro, True Love, a Story of English Domestic Life, Chicago, 1891. Sold for $8,750 (right).

This July, Devon Eastland, senior specialist of early printed books at Swann Galleries, turned her attention toward a special sale, Focus on Women, highlighting the contributions of those who identify as women in diverse fields that have shaped human history. The sale featured lots such as first editions, manuscript material, archives, and works on paper by historically significant writers, scientists, and artists from various fields ranging from before 1800 through the contemporary era.

Buyers responded positively, resulting in a resounding success for Swann. Not only did the auction realize sales totaling $333,893 on estimates of $167,250–$248,650, but out of 178 lots, 136 were sold, achieving a 78-percent sell-through rate by lot.

Courtesy of Swann Galleries

Juanna Inés de la Cruz, Fama, y Obras Posthumas del Fenix de Mexico Decima Musa, Poetisa Americana, Madrid, 1700. Sold for $81,250.

One of the biggest successes from the auction was a first edition quarto of the third part of Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Fama, y Obras Posthumas del Fenix de Mexico, Decima Musa, Poetisa Americana (1700), which sold for $81,250 on an estimate of $4,000–$6,000. Similarly, an archive of letters by Jane Russell written on sea voyages in the 1840s realized a price of $30,000 on an estimate of $3,000–$5,000, and A.F. Pollard’s Henry VIII in a Guild of Women Binders Exhibition Binding (1902) realized $12,350 on an estimate of $5,000–$7,000.

Notably, the Memphis Museum of Art purchased several items, including a set of five photos of trans women from 1952-1970, which sold for $1,000 on an estimate of $300–$500 and nine Guerrilla Girls text posters, which sold for $2,500 on an estimate of $400–$600.

“The experience of gathering, valuing, and cataloguing material for Focus on Women surprised me,” Eastland said. “Something about the process of getting it all together and looking at books, art, manuscripts, and ephemera through this lens changed the material itself in my eyes.”

For example, Eastland said Sarah Farro’s True Love, a Story of English Domestic Life (1891), a presumed first–and possibly only–edition of the work of a Black woman scholar, is “nonexistent” on the rare book market and “rare” even in libraries. This made the book difficult to estimate, but it ultimately realized a price of $8,750 on an estimate of $1,000–$2,000.

Eastland said cataloguing women’s work in the sciences was particularly eye-opening and satisfying, especially in the case of three glass-plate astronomical photographs (1899), which realized $688 on an estimate of $300–$500, because they were presented with the names of men who supervised and funded the project. Research, however, proved the work should be attributed to Mary Anna Draper, Anna Winlock, and Williamina Fleming.

“Pulling these names from beneath the pile was incredibly rewarding,” Eastland said, “and I will always be proud of my work to reconnect Mary Morris Clayton’s photo album to her impressive life’s work in physiology and nutrition. When the collection of 400 photographs (c. 1893-1993, realized $780 on estimate of $300–$500) reached me, it was simply an object of curiosity created by an unknown person, linking the person to these photos documenting her life was so fulfilling.”