Sleeper Auction in Kansas City

On Feb. 26, Dirk Soulis Auctions of Kansas City, Missouri, auctioned a superb collection of books and manuscripts from the estate of Pittsburg (KS) State University curator and archivist Eugene DeGruson. In that location--instead of the usual suspects--some scouts and booksellers "in the know" were hoping that this auction was just under the radar of the bigger book dealers. Even more intriguing to them was the fact that DeGruson's collection had been assembled with the help of Mary Benjamin, a prominent document dealer who died in 1998.

The 355 literary lots included signed letters from the likes of Charles A. Dana, Henry Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Longfellow, Lawrence, Tennyson, Byron, Mary Shelley, Samuel Pepys, and many others. Some carte-de-visites, a small photo archive of Edna St. Vincent Millay, an archive of Amy Lowell papers, an archive of Katherine Anne Porter, same of Glenway Wescott, a handful of presidential letters, Hollywood autographs, and a selection of Mark Twain books. Aside from the Twain, it was not a deep collection, but broad and surprising.

Even more surprising were the estimates -- which were very low. $1000-$1,500 for a first edition of Johnson's Dictionary? It went for $7,500, plus the ten percent premium. An Oscar Wilde manuscript poem estimated at $500-$1,000 went for $16,500. But the real kicker was the Walt Whitman manuscript poem from 1885, estimated at $400-$600. It sold for $55,500.

Dirk Soulis, the auctioneer, who does not specialize in books or manuscripts, told me that the low estimates are a "common strategy" for them. "It sometimes seems that the competition is heightened even further when those who were hoping this was their quiet find begin to sense intruders," he wrote to me by email. He then added, "Of course, we never saw that coming with the Whitman manuscript. A few others did surprise us as well." Depending on what estates come his way, Soulis usually has a good book auction about once a year.

While some of these big bids did come in by phone and online through Live Auctioneers, the floor was active as well, leading some to speculate that a couple of high-end dealers flew into Kansas City that week.