Despite a Few Clouds Over Title,<br>Texas Auction a Huge Success
By Michael Stillman
Texas has its reputation. It’s been said that Lyndon Johnson stole his first election in 1948. If so, he wasn’t the only Texan guilty of stealing during that era. Someone or some persons were busily sneaking books and manuscripts from the Texas State Library around the same time. And those without access to the state archives were doing the next best thing: printing up new copies of antiquities. Like their 19th century counterparts, these 20th century outlaws left their mark on the land. Today, whenever important Texas documents come up for sale, there will always be some question as to where they came from, are they legitimate, and does the seller truly own them.
This recently came up at a major sale of Texas material conducted by Sotheby’s on June 18, 2004. Being sold was a wonderful collection put together by an unnamed Texas physician and book collector who died over a decade ago. His family was now selling that collection. As Lauren Gioia of Sotheby’s noted, “It’s well known in the book world there are problems in Texas.” A lot of material was looted in the 1950s, material which still belongs to the state, even if no one knows where it is. This material may have long ago worked its way into the hands of honest and unwitting collectors, who paid good value for it, but that doesn’t matter. It still belongs to the state. When it finally shows up for sale on the open market, the state has the right to reclaim what it still lawfully owns.
So, when the collection came to them, Sotheby’s experts immediately set about checking the material, both for legal ownership and that other issue regarding fakes. They contacted the Texas State Library, which initially had no problems. Sotheby’s also hired the author of “Texfake” to check the collection and he found it to be authentic. However, the Texas State Library got back to them about one item, an 1835 handwritten letter by Jim Bowie to Stephen F. Austin. Records indicated this one-of-a-kind letter had once been in the Texas State Library, but at some point disappeared. Sotheby’s quickly pulled the item from the auction.
The seller later came back and removed three additional pieces from the sale. These were items copies of which had once been stolen. However, since these were printed items, it wasn’t clear whether these were the looted ones or other copies. The seller chose to put these aside until an examination can determine whether these were the state’s copies or others.
However, if all is well that ends well, then all was well for this auction. Almost all of the rest of the material was sold, and total receipts were well above the cumulative high estimates. As Ms. Gioia pointed out, Texas is one of the hottest areas of collecting today. Many of the buyers were Texans themselves, and evidently all those stereotypes about Texans and wealth must be true.