Book People | December 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Of Typewriters and Tamerlanes

Times are supposed to be tough, right? The market is flat, people are cutting back, collectors, like everyone else, are supposedly hunkering down. That may well be true, but one must be ever mindful of human nature when it involves the desire to own great stuff. This was best expressed to me some years ago by the eminent bookman Stephen Massey on whether or not he was concerned that a hot prospect would return to bid on a coveted item after being rude during a preliminary visit to an auction gallery, and told to leave the building. "If the book's good enough," Massey said, "they will always call back--they will crawl--if they really want the book."

GWLet.jpgWhich brings me to yesterday's sale of fine printed books, manuscripts and Americana at Christie's in New York, which totaled $6.4 million for 144 lots, or 82 percent of the 197 lots put on the block. Fully half of the money spent, $3.2 million, went for a 1787 letter written by George Washington to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, urging adoption of the new Constitution, pictured here, a world record for a Washington document of any sort. A ton of money, to be sure, but not a big surprise, given the uniqueness of the item, and its unquestioned value as both collectible and historical artifact. The same can be said for the $830,000 and $362,000 spent, respectively, for two lots of manuscript verses in the hand of Edgar Allan Poe', also unique.

Thumbnail image for PoeTam.jpgBut then we come to the copy of Poe's Tamerlane, for the past nineteen years the property of the distinguished Hollywood television producer William E. Self, which sold for $662,500, a record for a 19th-century book of poetry at auction. That was a cool half-million dollars more than Self paid for it in 1990 at the H. Bradley Martin sale in New York, an exciting contest I witnessed, and which persuaded me to set up an interview with Self for A Gentle Madness (pp. 420-426). "I don't think you can say you ever have a great Poe collection," he told me then, "unless you have a Tamerlane." Another notable item in yesterday's sale: $218,500 for an 1855 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass--like the Tamerlane, self-published by the author, making the pair, probably, the two most valuable vanity books in American literary history.

Thumbnail image for CormacType.jpgAnd then there is the matter of Cormac McCarthy's typewriter, which the New York Times wrote about a few days before the sale, an old Olivetti manual that the author bought around 1960 for $50, and on which he banged out, by his own estimate, some 5 million words, including the texts of all his books. Christie's estimated the machine, now inoperable, might bring in $15,000 to $20,000, with a pet McCarthy charity, the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, to receive all the proceeds.

So what happens in yesterday's sale? A winning bid of $254,500 for what, in the collecting world, is known simply as a "material object," an item that by itself has no scholarly value whatsoever, and is coveted strictly for its relationship to the source of creativity. This is-what Reynolds Price told me had motivated him to buy a particular copy of  Paradise Lost, not because of its textual importance, but because it was the copy owned by the daughter who took John Milton's dictation during his years of blindness. "For me, it was like the apostolic succession," Price said. "I was touching the hand that touched the hand that touched the Hand."

A final note: According to Christies, eight of the top ten purchases were made by private individuals, all but one of them Americans; a British dealer was listed as the buyer of a Charles Dickens lot, $158,500 for Nicholas Nickelby; an American dealer paid $182,500 for a copy of Poe's The Raven and Other Poems.