April 2010 | Jeremy Dibbell

Auction Preview: James S. Copley sale @ Sotheby's

The first sale of items from the James S. Copley Library will be held on Wednesday, 14 April at Sotheby's New York, and this is probably going to be the Americana sale to watch this year. The entire catalog is highlights, so I'll preview just a few of them here.

One item warrants its own mini-catalog [PDF]: one of 51 known Button Gwinnett signatures, being called "the finest ... that will ever be available for sale." It's a 12 July 1776 letter written by Timothy Matlack and signed by John Hancock, Robert Morris, Francis Lewis, George Read, Arthur Middleton, and Gwinnett. This very copy was purchased at a 1927 auction by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach for $51,000, then considered a totally outrageous price for an autograph. It was acquired by Countess Estelle Doheny, and sold at her sale, Christie's (1989) to the Copley Library. The estimate this time around: $500,000-700,000.

The main sale on Wednesday will be 188 lots, a first selection from the Copley Library. There's a terrific selection of Adams family letters, including one from Abigail to Benjamin Rush defending her husband from attacks made on him during the 1800 campaign ($10,000-15,000); a 1795 John Adams letter to Winthrop Sargent noting JA's lack of interest in Indian artifacts ("I am not enough in the habit of Antiquarian Speculations to hazard any Conjectures concerning them. I have never interested myself much in the Inquiries concerning the ancient Inhabitants of this country, or the Part of the World from which they first emigrated"), which is estimated at $25,000-35,000; letters from JA to Benjamin Rush dated 1808 and 1812 about partisan politics ($45,000-60,000 and $70,000-100,000 respectively); an 1837 JQA letter thanking his constituents for backing his anti-slavery efforts in the House ($120,000-180,000), &c. &c.

There's a 1784 Samuel Adams letter to Elbridge Gerry lamenting Washington's participation with the Society of the Cincinnati ($12,000-18,000); several notable documents by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, John Brown, John Paul Jones and others; British general John Burgoyne's account of the Battle of Bunker Hill ($40,000-60,000); a small archive of British Revolutionary War commissary and auditor-general Daniel Chamier ($150,000-200,000); American Andrew Eliot's eyewitness account of the Bunker Hill battle ($20,000-30,000); several Benjamin Franklin letters, including one relating to his autobiography ($50,000-70,000).

One of the lower-end items (heh) that I find pretty cool is a "Faneuil-Hall Lottery" ticket signed by John Hancock ($3,000-5,000); if you're into Hancock there's also a 1782 letter by him written in an attempt to recoup some of his expenses while serving in the Continental Congress ($40,000-60,000). If Jefferson's more up your alley, you can get a 1773 letter pertaining to the settlement of his father-in-law's estate ($70,000-100,000); or a 1785 letter to Richard Price thanking him for sending a copy of his latest publication ($60,000-90,000); or a 1786 letter to Crevecoeur relating news from America ($30,000-50,000). There's even an 1825 note to Rufus King sending payment for books and scientific instruments to be used at the University of Virginia ($35,000-45,000).

The major Lincoln item in this sale is an autograph telegram to General McClellan, dated 25 May 1862, in which the commander-in-chief urges his commander to move: "you must either attack Richmond, or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington." This is estimated to bring between $500,000-700,000.

In a c. 1708 document Cotton Mather decries the rampant sinning going on at Harvard ($5,000-7,000); Robert Treat Paine informs David Cobb of the selection of Washington as commanding officer in a 17 June 1775 letter ($18,000-25,000); Joseph Warren informs his correspondents of Arnold's victory at Ticonderoga in a May 1775 note ($25,000-35,000).
Among the George Washington documents are a 14 September 1775 letter ordering Benedict Arnold to march on Quebec ($100,000-300,000); a 12 March 1776 letter to John Tayloe in which he mentions plans to break the siege of Boston ($50,000-80,000); a wide-ranging 1781 letter to Joseph Jones ($60,000-90,000); a fascinating July 1788 letter to MA's Nathaniel Gorham, celebrating ratification of the Constitution ($150,000-250,000), and several other very interesting pieces.

I think my very favorite piece in this sale is the last lot: a printed copy of the U.S. Constitution annotated by an anti-federalist delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention. Aaron Wood outlines his disagreements with the proposed constitution, which makes this an awfully interesting document. It's estimated at $35,000-45,000.

If you're looking to round out your collection of signatures by Signers of the Declaration of Independence, this is a good sale for you - a fair number of them are represented here. It certainly will be fascinating to watch, and I suspect we may see some very high numbers posted for this sale.