New York — Sotheby’s December auctions of Books & Manuscripts concluded on Monday, with nearly 700 works sold across six live and online-only sales for a total of $6.1 million. From a newly-discovered manuscript of poems by John Donne, to the ‘dissolution of contract’ that formally ended the Beatles, below is a selection of highlights from the two online-only auctions at the center of this sales series.
Richard Austin, Head of Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Department in New York, commented: “Building off the success of our online-only auction of Books & Manuscripts this June, whose $3.3 million total achieved the highest result for an online-only sale at Sotheby’s in any category, we are very pleased with the results of our December auctions both live and online. In particular, we were excited to see more than half of all sold lots in our online-only sales exceeding their high estimates. From classical music manuscripts to pop music history, rare first editions to newly-discovered autographed letters, we saw many strong prices across the diversity of our field.”
NEWLY DISCOVERED MANUSCRIPT OF POEMS BY JOHN DONNE
A previously unrecorded handwritten manuscript by 16th-century British poet, John Donne, which was recently discovered by a Sotheby’s specialist at Melford Hall in Suffolk, sold for $595,315 - marking Sotheby’s highest-ever price achieved in an online-only auction. Described by Sotheby’s book specialists as ‘one of the supreme literary achievements of the English language’, the manuscript is one of the largest contemporary collections of Donne’s poems.
A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Donne was born into a Catholic household, and experimented with careers first as a soldier-adventurer, and then as secretary to the Lord Keeper in Elizabeth I’s court, a position from which he was promptly sacked, and briefly imprisoned, for eloping with his employer’s niece. His rakish life provided ample material for the poems in this collection - songs and sonnets, erotic elegies and satires. Converting to the Church of England, Donne rose to become Dean of St Pauls in the 1620s with the support of King James I. His extraordinary body of lyrics, full of frank eroticism, theatrical arrogance and jarring rhythms, were considered unlikely output from one of England’s leading priests.
THE FIRST BOOK TO DESCRIBE A STOCK EXCHANGE
Sold to benefit the Rare Book Acquisition Fund of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a rare first edition of Joseph Penso de la Vega’s Confusion de Confusiones written in 1688 achieved $375,000 (estimate $200/300,000). Likely one of less than ten surviving copies, Confusion de Confusiones represents the first book ever to describe a stock exchange. It gives a detailed explanation of the Amsterdam stock exchange, and outlines practices such as puts, calls, pools and manipulations, which remain relevant in today’s exchanges. Despite its great accuracy and keen insights, Confusion was relatively unknown until German economist Richard Ehrenberg published an influential essay in the 1892 Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, “Die Amsterdame Aktienspekulation un 17. Jarhhundert.” The historical significance of the work was further enhanced by translations into German and Dutch in 1919 and 1939, and in 1957 an abridged translation in English by Hermann Kellenbenz brought the text even wider recognition.
SHAKESPEARE’S COMEDIES, HISTORIES AND TRAGEDIES
Published according to the true Originall Copies, Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies brought $300,000 - double its high estimate of $150,000. The present edition was printed by Thomas Cotes, who had taken over Isaac Jaggard’s shop in 1627, for publishers Robert Allot, John Smethwick, William Aspley, Richard Hawkins, and Richard Meighen - each of whom had rights in one or more of the plays.
THE DISSOLUTION OF THE BEATLES
Marking the end of a global phenomenon, Apple Corps Limited Dissolution of Contract, Signed by All Four Beatles fetched $118,750, more than double its high estimate. While The Beatles had creatively parted ways in 1969, they had reached an accord to formally dissolve by 1974 following years of litigation, and the documents were meant to be signed on 19 December at a meeting at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. McCartney and Harrison were there in person, while Starr, having already signed the document, was on the telephone. Although Lennon lived a short distance from the Plaza, he left his former band mates waiting, purportedly giving the excuse: “the stars aren’t right” (in reality his absence was due to lingering concerns over taxation).
On 29 December, a lawyer met a vacationing John with the amended contract in Disney World. The moment was captured by John’s partner May Pang, who remarked that Lennon “looked wistfully out the window” before signing underneath his band mates’ signatures.
A RARE LETTER FROM THE FATHER OF MODERN GENETICS
A remarkable letter written in German from Gregor Mendel to his parents mentioning Friedrich Franz reached $300,000, more than 20x its high estimate of $15,000, with 45 bids placed. Given the tone of the letter, it is assumed that it dates to the 1840s, when Mendel, upon the recommendation of his physics teacher Friedrich Franz, entered the Augustinian St. Thomas's Abbey in Brno. Mendel had not planned to be a monk, but the Augustinian's valued science, research, and education. Mendel was one of Franz's favorite students, and the two men eventually became good friends and often debated a number of topics including the origin of the solar system and of life as such, Goethe's philosophy, and the purpose of human life. Mendel passed away in complete obscurity, and as a result manuscripts relating to his life very rarely appear at auction, and no other autograph letters by Mendel are known to have appeared auction.
Image: A rare first edition of the first book to describe a stock exchange, Confusion de Confusiones achieves $375,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.