As we ring out another year, it is time to take one last look back at 2011 and check out the top sales in the field of books, manuscripts and ephemera. Every year, AE compiles a list of the top 500 prices paid at auction, and this time we find that, for all the financial turmoil in the world, the well-heeled collector remains strong as ever.
There was nothing this past year to match 2010's most expensive item, an elephant folio first edition of Audubon's Birds of America. That was the most expensive printed book ever sold, coming in at well over $11 million. However, in 2011, there were 11 items that broke the million-dollar barrier, compared to just 8 in 2010. Perhaps more significantly, number 500 sold for $52,170, representing a 9% increase over number 500 in 2010, which sold for $47,806. That is a sign of depth of buying, at least in the upper end of the market.
Once again, the top of the list is dominated by manuscript and ephemeral material rather than traditional printed books. This type of material is usually one of a kind, or is more visual than are traditional books, and as a result commands the very highest prices. Some are even iconic items of today's generations, rather than antiquarian works of generations long gone. Audubon's Birds of America is the exception rather than the rule. Last year, only two traditional printed books, Audubon and a Shakespeare First Folio, made it to the Top 10, and for 2011, it is once again just two.
Before we proceed to the Top 10, and then the entire list, here are a few of the other items that made it into the Top 500.
Number 492 is a letter from a 16-year-old bride to her foster mother describing her happy new life as a homemaker. The writer of this 1942 letter was Norma Jean Dougherty. You know her as Marilyn Monroe. $52,460.
Tied at 492 is a 40-volume set of the American Statesmen, but the owner has bound extra documents into the front of the volumes autographed by a who's who list of important early Americans. There are 11 U.S. presidents represented, including Washington, Jefferson, both Adams, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant, along with a host of other statesmen, including Hamilton, Franklin, Marshall and Jay. $52,460.
Number 431 is a letter signed by “Fr. Junipero Serra” in 1777. Serra set up missions in Alta California, and was likely more responsible than anyone for the settlement of what is now the State of California. $59,375.
Number 403 is a virtually complete collection of everything published by the Paris Olympia Press and its offshoots, some 350 items from the 1950s. $62,500.
Here are a couple of tributes to pop culture. The one-year anniversary comic appearance of Superman from 1939 is number 373. $67,435. Ian Fleming reaches 365 with his tale of Goldfinger. $68,500.
Number 341 is a poster advertising the budget (third class) fares for the trip back from New York to Europe on board the Titanic. For obvious reasons, it never made that return voyage. $72,000.
Number 292 is a Bob Dylan poster with a handwritten get-well poem to Elizabeth Taylor, with “Love FOREVER Bob.” Who knew? Michael Jackson had musical competition for the lady's heart. $80,500.
Back to the Titanic. Number 265 is a collection of 8 telegrams sent by Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, from the Carpathia to the home office. “Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning fifteenth after collison iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later,” he writes in the first message. $86,500.
Number 190 is a contingency checklist used on the Apollo 13 rocket after an oxygen tank explosion crippled the ship. You all know the harrowing story of the astronauts' miraculous safe return. $111,020.
Number 167 is the “birth certificate of New York,” authorization from King Charles II to Edmund Andros to take possession of the colony formerly known as New Netherland from the Dutch in 1674. $120,000.
Number 141 is a cache of 22 letters from private high school student Jacqueline Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis) to her then Harvard boyfriend that reveal her wit, charm and intelligence so early on. “If school days are the happiest of your life,” she writes at one point, “I'm hanging myself with my skip-rope tonight.” $134,500.
Item 124 is a far more romantic love letter, from poet John Keats to his fiancee Fanny Brawne. Writes Keats, “The power of your benediction is of not so weak a nature as to pass from the ring in four and twenty hours - it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate.” Does anyone write letters like that anymore? Of course not. They write emails like that. $153,600.
Number 70 is the first edition, first issue of perhaps the most important piece of American poetry ever written, Walt Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass. $230,500.
There were no First Folios this year, but even a 1664 Shakespeare Third Folio came in at number 17. $542,500.
And now, we have reached the Top 10.