The Victor Gulotta Collection of Charles Dickens

At the upcoming Heritage auction in New York City on April 7-9, rare Charles Dickens manuscript material, serialized parts, first editions, theatrical broadsides, and period photographs will find new owners (of course, if you want to get a head start or won’t be in NYC, you can place bids online). Ten years in the making, this is an amazing collection, and I’ve taken the opportunity to talk with the collector, Victor Gulotta, about how he built the collection and why it’s time to divest.

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All the first edition original parts of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in original blue wrappers by publishers Chapman and Hall. Protected in a quarter dark green morocco clamshell case. Opening bid $3,500. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

RRB: Victor, I know from your work with Nicholas Basbanes that you have a literary profession. Tell us about yourself and how you came to be a collector.

VG: My background is in book publishing. After studying literature in college, I landed a position with a small, scholarly publisher, where I edited manuscripts and promoted books. As a promotion specialist, I went on, over the course of sixteen years, to head publicity departments at several trade and scholarly publishing houses. Later, I started my own company, Gulotta Communications, Inc., a full-service PR firm for authors and publishers. As a literary publicist, I continue to represent fiction and nonfiction authors.
 
While the authors I represent are very much alive, the ones I collect are decidedly dead. Looking back at the genesis of my collecting, I’d have to say that it was in grade school when I began a systematic effort to acquire books. I loved our local library in Brooklyn, but found returning books a bit frustrating: I wanted to keep the books I’d read, so I could refer back to them at my convenience. The solution was in the copies of Scholastic and Tab books I would order through my school. Each month, our teachers, most of whom were nuns, would announce to their respective classes that a shipment had arrived. Then they would bring in the boxes of books and dispense them to the beaming students who had placed orders. I always felt sorry for the kids who emerged empty-handed.
 
I chose books from different genres, including American and English lit (which included Dickens novels), history, biographies, science, and science fiction. Now I had books I could read, reread, and cherish. I began to assemble a nice collection of paperbacks, eventually supplementing or replacing them with hardcover editions. Much later on, I discovered the joy of first editions. Thus began my collecting.
 
RRB: Your focus has been Dickens, and that’s the collection up for auction in April by Heritage. Why Dickens, and how long did it take you to put this collection together?

VG: Dickens has long been my favorite English novelist. I suppose it’s his treatment of social injustice that I find most compelling. Then there are all the other reasons to love Dickens--too numerous to go into here. Suffice it to say that I never grow tired of his fiction, nor of accounts of his life.

I began collecting Dickens in earnest in 2001, shortly after selling my Longfellow collection, a fourteen-year project, to Harvard. The connection between Longfellow and Dickens, who were trans-Atlantic friends, was in the back of my mind when I shifted gears. I’ve saved a letter in which Longfellow reflects on his 1842 visit with Dickens in England.

It took me ten years to build my Dickens collection. It reflects my deep appreciation for the life, not just the works, of this great novelist.

RRB: What are your buying methods -- visiting shops, perusing catalogues, attending fairs, searching online? Has one dealer been especially helpful?

VG: When I collected Longfellow, there were several dealers--people like Jim Randall at Ahab Rare Books in Cambridge and David O’Neal in Boston--who always kept me in mind for special material. In the early stages of collecting Dickens, I relied in part on Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles (not to be confused with Heritage Auctions in Dallas). They were legendary Dickens specialists, and I acquired a number of parts issues from them. As I advanced in my collecting, I drew from a multitude of sources.

I continue to buy from diverse sources, in particular because my interests are more varied these days (in addition to nineteenth-century literary material, I collect early printed volumes and medieval manuscripts). When I can, I visit shops, but I buy primarily from auctions and online listings, fairs when they’re in town, catalogues, and occasionally from individuals.

RRB: For many book collectors, the best part of collecting is the chase. Which of these items was the most fun to “find”?

VG: Undoubtedly, the most satisfying find was the Autographed Quotation Signed (AQS) of Little Nell’s death scene in The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens penned this piece while in Boston during his first American tour, in 1842. Dickens AQsS rarely come on the market; I acquired this piece some years ago at a small local auction. It had not seen the light of day for decades before.

RRB: Why have you decided to sell the collection?

VG: Collections are fun-filled, intellectually stimulating projects. I collect a lot of historical--mostly literary--material. Collecting fuels my interest in, and knowledge of, a particular subject, whether it’s an author, a genre, or a period. When I reach the stage of accomplishing what I’ve set out to achieve--and that usually means a collection has been formed to my satisfaction--I move on. In the case of Longfellow, that meant finding an appropriate institution to house the collection.  With Dickens, I’ve chosen to go the auction route, in part because he was more of a public figure--it seems appropriate that his letters, portraits, first editions, and other material should be made available to his many fans, especially on the eve of the bicentenary celebration of his birth (2012).

RRB: Do you have a favorite piece, one that’s most difficult to part with? (I just love the red wax seal with Dickens’ crest -- it seems so personal.)

VG: Besides the aforementioned Little Nell manuscript item, I’d have to say that I will most miss the photographs. Comprising several lots, there are two dozen cartes de visite, a couple of cabinet cards, and a large albumen photo, each a contemporary image of Dickens. Like the autograph material--and the wax seal you mention--these images provide a personal connection to Dickens. Yes, you can read a Penguin paperback copy--or better yet, a first edition--of David Copperfield, his most autobiographical novel; or treat yourself to the meticulously detailed 1952 biography of Dickens by Edgar Johnson, and you’ll make a deeply personal connection with the great novelist, but spend some time with these photos, taken from life, and you’ll add a new dimension to your appreciation for Dickens.

To read more about the Gulotta Collection, read this article written by HA’s rare books manager Joe Fay in the company’s January newsletter. Our thanks to Mr. Gulotta for spending some time with us.
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