The Roy Davids sale of Poetical Manuscripts & Portraits of Poets [A-K] at Bonhams in London on April 10th will test the mettle and self-confidence of the most serious collectors of poetry for there are many things for the determined to buy. Does one mortgage the family estate? Such material does not often come around although this said, there is a second catalogue, the L-Y volume already in the wings and yammering for attention in May. Perhaps first and second mortgages are in order.
Poems are words, each freighted, their sequence, sound and pace ordered into images and ideas to trigger feeling. They are at once the crown jewels of the written word and the stodgy half-wits of the narrative sentence. They, like modern art, are seen and heard by many and understood by few. They are the language within the words, their original examples difficult to collect. When the words are famous it's easy enough to find bidders. When the words are important but the audience more academic it’s less clear who will raise their paddles. At such moments the interested must have self-confidence for sales of this caliber do not often occur. And here they occur twice and in short order.
For collectors all three pillars for an important sale are present here.
 A single owner sale of a collection built over four decades. A single owner sale suggests perspective.
 Unique material. Manuscripts are by their nature one-ofs.
 Estimates that make sense. Prior dispersals of the Davids collection [these are the 3rd and 4th] did well, achieving a high percentage of lots sold - confirming that estimates and reserves were modest.
To put this sale in context I asked Matthew Haley, Head of Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams in London for his perspective.
“These are largely 19th century or earlier, 20th century highlights [because I asked] include: T.S. Eliot, 'The Journey of the Magi'; Ted Hughes, 'The Thought-Fox'; Robert Lowell, 'Fall 1961'; and Betjeman, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.'
In terms of estimates and reserves, I think the estimates adequately reflect the scarcity of this material. As Roy Davids says in his introduction to the catalogue for the April sale, the collection was assembled over forty years and could not be replicated today in any meaningful way. At the same time, there are a good number of more affordable manuscripts in the sale and quite a few that will be offered without reserve.
Taken together there are some magnificent items in the sale representing the high points of English literature. We're looking forward to both auctions in April and May and watching over five hundred items find new homes.”
I also asked for lots to look at for their quality and importance and his response is instructive. He listed 8 items from the two prior sales and 7 items upcoming.
Autograph Manuscript on abstaining from blood
Sold for £102,000
Autograph Letter to Fanny Brawne
Sold for £96,000
Portrait of T.S. Eliot by Sir Gerald Kelly
Oil on canvas
Sold for £50,400