Book People | February 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Great Stuff Always Finds a Home

Regardless of how stressed the economy may be at any given time, truly great books and manuscripts will always find a new home, and rarely will they be at fire-sale prices. That is an axiom I learned when I began my research for "A Gentle Madness" back in the 1980s, and it holds true to this day. The quote that lingers in my mind is from Stephen Massey, at the time of our first interview in 1991 head of the rare books division of Christie's in New York, these days an independent appraiser who appears often on the Antiques Road Show.

The context of our discussion  was the mysterious collector Haven O'More (see chapter 6 of AGM, "To Have and to Have No More"), and the sale in 1978 of a Gutenberg Bible. O'More had come by the auction gallery one day unannounced before the auction to look at the book, and there were some heated words exchanged between the two, with Massey saying, finally, that if O'More wanted to see it, he'd have to make an appointment. "I wasn't worried about losing him," Massey told me with great candor--and he was speaking at this point about bibliophiles and bibliomanes in general--"because if the book's good enough, they will always call back--they will crawl--if they really want the book."
As things turned out, O'More did come back, and though he didn't get the Bible for his library, he was the underbidder, finishing second in spirited bidding to a dealer who paid $2.2 million on behalf of a library in Germany. And these are 1978 dollars we are talking about.

Flash forward to the present day, and we have two news reports from last week, one from Christie's, another from Sotheby's, both of which appear to reinforce the axiom.

On Feb. 12---aptly, Abraham Lincoln's birthday--an anonymous buyer bidding at a Christie's sale by telephone paid $3.44 million for the autograph copy of a victory speech Lincoln delivered in 1864 from a White House window on the occasion of his winning a second term as president. "Now that the election is over," Lincoln said, "may not all [of us] reunite in a common effort, to save our common country." It is a major document, and the price realized for the four-page address in his hand is the most ever paid for an American historical document, topping by $400,000 the amount paid last year for a letter written by Lincoln to a group of school children who had asked him to free America's "slave children."

While this was going on at Christie's 20 Rockefeller Plaza salesroom, an exhibition was opening to the public in the East Side galleries of Sotheby's. In this instance, it was not one luminous item being offered for sale, but a remarkable collection of 13,000 books and manuscripts gathered over several decades by one man--Jack V. Lunzer, a Belgian diamond merchant who lives in London--and regarded by various experts as "the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world." 

What makes the announcement that these materials are being offered for sale so extraordinary is that none of the items can be bought individually. Any institution or well-heeled private collector who is interested in obtaining the library en bloc must be prepared to offer, according to the auction house, a minimum of $40 million. For the rest of us--and, thankfully, we don't need to make an appointment in advance--the books are open to public view at the Sotheby's galleries, 1334 York Avenue at 72nd Street, through Feb. 19.