The Loot Returns
By Bruce McKinney
Sotheby's recently completed an exhibition of material from the James S. Copley collection of printed and manuscript Americana that will be sold beginning later this year. The exhibition was a celebration for the auction house that received this important commission from the Copley heirs. As many as eight sales are envisioned but if the estimates of value are correct it seems likely 4 to 6 sales will suffice. Mr. Copley edited the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1947 to 1973 and was President of the Inter American Press Association 1969-1970. He was the adopted son of Col. Ira C. Copley who bought the Tribune in 1928.
Among the marquee and simply interesting examples in the collection is an 1862 message that an impatient Lincoln sent to his dilatory Union Commander, George B. McClellan, urging him to action. Two years later General McClellan would finally take action - by accepting the nomination of the Democrats to run for President against Mr. Lincoln.
Benedict Arnold, who has come down to us as both noun and verb, is also represented in the collection with letters of excessive apology that we can now see in a clearer light than was evident at the time.
Only collectors over fifty can remember that George Washington material did not always require first and second mortgages and pledges of first-born children. Mr. Copley acquired more than thirty years ago, when it was easier [and less expensive], various items relating to the first President. At auction they'll do well if not so well as they might have two years ago. To the dictum, you can never be too rich or too thin, you can add "or have enough Washington autograph material."
The Copley material spans the entire American experience so Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stow share shelf space with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Gershwin to name only some. The list is apparently long.
So over the next two years with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as bookends on one side paired with Dwight D. Eisenhower's World War II letters to Mamie on the other, we will revisit material not seen since the era of Ed Sullivan, the Beatles and Elvis Presley to see how we feel today about things that have passed from collectible to iconic in two generations.
For Sotheby's it's a coup, for the market an exciting prospect.