The Complications Of Collecting Rare Books

In 1939, Ernest Hemingway left a large collection of his belongings—the manuscript of his earliest short story, childhood trinkets, memorabilia from his time at war, intimate letters, books, and more—in a storeroom behind Sloppy Joe’s, a bar he frequented in Key West that was owned by some friends of his. When Penn State University’s Toby and Betty Bruce Collection of Ernest Hemingway acquired the items in 2021, it represented the most significant trove of Hemingway memorabilia discovered in generations. But not everything went to Penn State. Some materials found at Sloppy Joe’s instead entered the rare-book marketplace, including 40 books from Hemingway’s personal collection. I know this because I have them.

As modernist rare-book collectors, my father and I decided to add these works to our collection when we came across the listing. They include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, inscribed to Hemingway by his “loving mother” (with whom he had a contentious relationship, according to his letters, and whom he blamed for his father’s suicide); his high-school debate textbook, ornamented with doodles of a tree and a snake; and a war novel holding a pencil-written note to himself—a reminder to compose a story about the “death of Lieut. Taylor with flu in Milan.” These books stretch from Hemingway’s youngest years to 1939, when he turned 40; they not only illuminate Hemingway’s reading habits, but they also date particular books he owned to certain periods of his life.

As I fell down a rabbit hole investigating whether Hemingway ultimately wrote a story about a Lieut. Taylor (a mystery I’m still trying to solve), I wondered about which other literary pearls are housed in private collections.

Just because a book is a first edition does not always mean it is “rare”—the same goes for the old book on your shelf that was published back in 1857. A book’s demand, condition, publishing history, whether it is signed or inscribed, and even the timing of when a book enters the market are all factors that affect its value. A dust jacket–less first edition of The Great Gatsby is not as rare as a copy wearing the famous dust jacket. The former commands, on average, $4,500 to $8,000 (mostly depending on its condition), while a copy with an unrestored dust jacket is likely to command at least $100,000. Even rarer is an inscribed copy—the most recent of which sold in September for £226,800 at Christie’s, or about $283,000. (This same copy had sold at Bonhams for $191,000 in 2015, demonstrating how its value skyrocketed in less than a decade.) I turn to The Great Gatsby not only because it’s arguably the most famous rare book in terms of 20th-century first editions, but also to illustrate that its value has the capacity to vary, and that a truly one-of-a-kind book involves more than merely being a first edition with a dust jacket. The copy that sold at Christie’s belonged to Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer, whose fame potentially played into the book’s value. But that value comes primarily from the quality and nature of Fitzgerald’s inscription, which was presented to a friend, Harold Goldman, whom Fitzgerald refers to as “the original ‘Gatsby’” in his note.

the cover of a debate book on which hemingway drew a tree and a snake
The cover of a debate book on which Hemingway drew a tree and a snake (Courtesy of the author)

In addition to being a collector and an obsessive reader, I’m also an academic—meaning I understand acutely how crucial it is for people to be able to explore literary history through primary documents, and how even the smallest marginalia may carry immense meaning. Does the copy of The Great Gatsby signed to Goldman belong in an institution, such as the New York Public Library or a university’s special collections, where the public can see and access it, whether it be for the pleasure of viewership or for scholarship? (Conversations on the ethics of private ownership permeate the fine-art world too, wherein wealthy individuals—such as Madonna and Jay-Z—own Basquiats, Warhols, and Picassos.) Rare-book dealers will tell you that private collections involve less red tape than institutions—bureaucratic hurdles to access that aren’t in the public interest. For example, in libraries, uncataloged books can lie untouched for months, or even longer, because of a librarian’s other responsibilities or a lack of resources and time. For these reasons, donations or newly purchased books may not be as readily available as one may think. At the same time, Rebecca Romney, a co-founder of the rare-book firm Type Punch Matrix and the rare-books consultant for the TV show Pawn Stars, told me that “it’s not uncommon for collectors to have open invitations for scholars to come to their collection. It’s more the rule than the exception. This is the whole point”—collectors want to share their collections.

The dilemma regarding the ethical placement of a rare book isn’t convoluted for Tom Lecky, who was the head of the rare-books and manuscripts department at the auction firm Christie’s for 17 years and now runs Riverrun Books & Manuscripts. When I mentioned the Hemingway manuscript of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” that sold for $248,000 at Christie’s back in 2000, he pointed out that institutions had had “every bit the opportunity to buy it as a private individual.” Other singular works that have been up for auction are James Joyce’s “Circe” manuscript, Sylvia Plath’s personally annotated Bible, a serial printing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era newspaper, and the proofs of that first Great Gatsby dust jacket. In each case, I was captivated by their fate. The National Library of Ireland bought Joyce’s manuscript for $1.5 million and digitized it; Plath’s Bible went to an undisclosed buyer for about $11,000; so did the newspapers, for $126,000. Nobody placed a winning bid for the Gatsby cover art.

For Lecky, the ethical question we should be asking isn’t whether institutions should acquire rare books instead of collectors, but what happens when “a private owner owns something that no one knows that they have.” Lecky, like many others in the trade, works to dispel myths about how private collections work. Private collections tend to be temporary and books often jump between hands, but for the time that a collector owns a book, in my view, they should make efforts to share it. “Most collectors don’t think of it as possession but caretaking,” Lecky said. “They’re a piece of the chain in the provenance, not the end of it.”

Historically, private collectors have formed the foundations of institutions. “There are entire libraries and museums that were created by collectors,” Barbara Heritage, the director of collections, exhibitions, and scholarly initiatives at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, told me—the Morgan Library & Museum; the Getty Research Institute; the Folger Shakespeare Library; and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, to name a few.

Many rare books, manuscripts, and items in the collections at these institutions are donated by or purchased from private collectors. In other cases, a donor supplies the funds for an institution to make general or specific acquisitions. If you’ve visited the permanent “Polonsky Exhibition of the New York Public Library’s Treasures,” you might have seen one-of-a-kind items on rotation, such as an early manuscript draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair, and a page from the manuscript of an unpublished chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These pieces were “acquired through the generosity of” a donor or were donated by a collector.

Collectors tend to donate or sell their collections to institutions if they don’t put them back into the marketplace via auction houses or rare-book sellers. “Collecting isn’t mere shopping,” Heritage said. “The best collecting requires vision, passion, knowledge, and creativity—and, above all, persistence.” Collecting, for Heritage, has the capacity to be a form of advocacy through the creation of knowledge and the ability to tie together strands of knowledge that otherwise couldn’t be done unless one has a lifelong devotion to a particular subject. Some collectors have honed niche collections that have since been deposited in libraries (either wholly or partially). Walter O. Evans collected Black artwork and literature that now constitute mainstay collections—such as the Walter O. Evans Collection of Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers and the Walter O. Evans collection of James Baldwin—at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Douglass papers in Evans’s collection have been digitized so that scholars, students, and the public can access them.

Or consider the archives created from the collections of Lisa Unger Baskin, who sold her trove of women-related ephemera—including thousands of books dating from 1240 to the late 20th century—to Duke University. Unger Baskin’s political activism is reflected in her collection of materials created by women. She told me how, for example, she priced herself out of the market because she participated in the creation of a market that values women’s work. With a sharp eye, she bought many materials that others didn’t pay attention to, such as Charlotte Brontë’s needlework, which she scooped up in London for £60. Before selling to Duke, Unger Baskin considered four other universities. Their financial offers were obviously salient, but she liked that Duke promised to make her assemblage a teaching collection, so she accepted its proposal and sold everything to the school, including a desk that was designed and used by Virginia Woolf. Because Unger Baskin continues to collect, she has a contract with Duke stipulating that the rest of her collection will also go there.

Sammy Jay, a senior literature specialist at Peter Harrington Rare Books, told me that collectors are “scholars in a hybrid sense.” For Stuart A. Rose—the namesake of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University—amassing materials is synonymous with sharing them with the public. He chose to donate much of his collection to his alma mater rather than put it back into the marketplace. (Like Unger Baskin, he’s still collecting. Unlike her, he has yet to make up his mind about what he’ll do with the materials he continues to acquire.) Today, he opens his home to classes at Ohio State University and says he has never turned down a scholar who wants to reference a book in his collection, which includes a copy of The Great Gatsby inscribed by Fitzgerald, one of the first 100 copies of Ulysses signed by Joyce, and what he claims is the most extensive private collection of Jane Austen’s corpus.

Though all private collections are at risk of theft, flooding, and fire, collectors argue that these threats are no different from those that institutions face. Private collections tend to have less traffic and less handling, and this limited exposure can help with preservation. Yet preservation may be vulnerable when selling publicly. As Lecky pointed out, “A collection can be formed over 50 years and then suddenly it goes to auction and there are five days of auction exhibit, and in those five days, those books are handled more than they’ve been in the last 50 years.” When rare books are in institutions, Rose believes they should be on view, so that the public can see “what makes a book great.”

Rose’s exhibition will be the first on view at one of the two new exhibition halls at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., set to be unveiled in June. Other private collectors have taken a less traditional approach to presenting their collections. The artistic director Kim Jones made Woolf’s Orlando a central theme in Fendi’s spring/summer women’s collection in 2021, and used Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the basis for Dior’s men’s fall 2022 fashion show. Both fashion shows were complemented by exhibits featuring the books that were cornerstones of the collections.

If one believes that literary relics should be held only in public environments, then trying to define the ideal private collector is a contradiction in terms. But in practice, access can be complicated. Consider again the inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby, signed by Fitzgerald to his “original Gatsby.” As part of the auction, Christie’s included pictures of the book and its inscription in the listing, along with a detailed description. Though private collecting may rob someone of an unmediated experience with that book, the sale leaves a trail of photos, making it arguably more accessible than it would be in either a private or public collection. Perhaps book enthusiasts should focus less on ownership and more on establishing a broad cultural responsibility to share unique books and manuscripts, be it in the form of a public exhibition, digitization, or appointment-only home visits.

At the same time, the rare-books market is evolving as the medium itself changes, which is seen in the popularity of audiobooks and ebooks. Have we, or are we about to, hit a civilizational point in which all writers from today onward will not compose handwritten manuscripts and letters? Will the only manuscripts and letters that circulate the marketplace be pre-2020? Are visible drafts—which allow us to trace an author’s structuring and even restructuring of a novel—a thing of the past, as the errors in our online documents are constantly replaced by spell-check and are saved over and over again, erasing the history of a truly original document? One can project that the marketplace will begin to include technological objects, which will come at exorbitant costs. If bundles of Joan Didion’s empty notebooks sold for $11,000 apiece and her Celine faux-tortoiseshell sunglasses were purchased for $27,000 in 2022, what price tag will be put on an author’s cellphone or laptop, if they choose to sell them? Salman Rushdie, for example, sold his personal archive to Emory, including a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops, and an external hard drive.

The ceaseless evolution of technology, the proliferation of cheaply produced paperbacks, and a change in what we consider to be literary objects will undoubtedly affect the future of the trade and the contents of our archives. Will time reveal a pushback in adopting technology in the writing process, or will note-taking software, email, and SMS expand our understanding and the breadth of a personal archive? Lately I have been thinking about how and when I will have to rehome my own collection of rare books and how I see my career unfolding in the rare-book world. As I contemplate these questions, I know that my guiding principle will be accessibility. And in the meantime, I plan to accept an invitation to bring my Hemingways to Penn State University to be digitized.

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