The Story of the 20th Century via Auction
- by Thomas C. McKinney
Some of the items available in Bonham's Story of the 20th Century Sale
Material from the 20th century is inherently more common than older items. So for a sale to focus solely on the time period, the lots included must be particularly significant and of a high quality. One such sale takes place this month on June 4th. The Story of the 20th Century by Bonhams New York features 188 lots covering history and politics, art and literature, and science and technology. Items rela ting to many of the most significant events and people of those hundred years are available here: the moon landing, the stock market crashes of 1929 and 1987, John Steinbeck, the Wright Brothers, Einstein, and Alan Turing, are but a few of the appearances. With the time period being the unifying theme, there are items of interest for collectors of many different subjects.
History and politics are listed first, comprising twenty-seven lots and makes for one of the smaller sections of the sale. Of note are three lots on African-American history. Lot 1, an archive of African-American photography from the 1950s-80s includes a wide perspective of Black life in Los Angeles during an important time for civil rights and (est. $8,000-12,000). A substantial collection of Black Panther Party newspapers is also being offered at lot 5 (est. $4,000-6,000) while an original pastel, watercolor and ink portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. used for the dust jacket of an illustrated gift book of his “I Have a Dream” speech is available as lot 15 (est. $4,000-6,000). Also present in the history and politics sections are two spools of Dow Jones paper news tape from Friday, October 16 and Monday, October 19, 1987, the second date being the infamous Black Monday (lot 4, est. $3,000-5,000), as well as a signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon (lot 2, est. $4,000-6,000).
Perhaps the two most significant lots of the sale are contained within the section devoted to Russian art and literature. The two items make up an outstanding archive of original artwork and manuscripts by the “Soviet Pirsanesi,” Yakov Chernikhov. Though relatively unknown to Westerners due to the small number of his designs that were built, Chernikhov is viewed as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. He lived in a time and a place where his grand visions could not be brought into existence, and his greatest impact was through his teaching and influence on contemporaries and successors. The lots comprise unique and unavailable until now material. Lot 28 is estimated $350,000-450,000 while lot 29 is estimated $150,000-250,000.
Many gems are to be found within the Art and Literature portion of the sale. Some of the items that pop include a first edition, first issue of The Wizard of Oz (lot 48, est. $6,000-8,000), multiple items from Robert Frost (lots 61-67), multiple signed works by Theodor “Dr.” Seuss (lots 68-72), an inscribed, privately printed edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (lot 81, est. $50,000-70,000), an inscribed first edition of The Grapes of Wrath (lot 91, est. $25,000-35,000), and an original drawing of Superman signed by his two creators (lot 99, est. $20,000-30,000).
The sale concludes with Science and Technology. For collectors of aviation material with deep pockets, this sale cannot be missed. Beginning with Aviation: The Cody Archive (lot 105, est. $150,000-200,000), several significant items are offered. Samuel Cody was an early aviator who experimented with kites before turning his attention to planes and making the first recorded flight over British soil. This archive is a large collection of imagery, as well as journals and diaries kept by Cody related to his kite experiments, blueprints and models of kites, and a large group of his personal files such as flight records, correspondence, patent documents, and other related material. Following the Cody archive are three first editions by the Wright Brothers, the second being Orville Wright’s own copy of Experiments and Observations in Soaring Flight (lot 107, est. $25,000-35,000), and a swatch of fabric from the Kitty Hawk glider accompanied by a presentation note inscribed by Orville Wright (lot 108, est. $7,000-10,000).
Other important works found in the Science and Tech part of the sale are a first printing of Max Planck’s quantum theory (lot 139, est. $20,000-30,000), a presentation copy of the first edition of the identification of the double helix structure of DNA (lot 149, est. $35,000-45,000), and a first edition of Alan Turing’s On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem which is considered to be one of the most important 20th century paper in computer science that directly led to Turing’s creation of a universal computing machine (lot 161, $25,000-35,000).
I opened this article saying that a sale of the 20th century must contain significant and high quality items to succeed. After reviewing these highlights, I hope you are convinced.