A Visit with Jeremy Markowitz at Swann Galleries


The final item that Markowitz shows me from his own personal lexicon of sale highpoints is Lot 288, a book from Mark Twain’s library, signed by him on the pastedown, with occasional annotations throughout, some commenting on contemporary life, literature, and philosophy, and some more mundane though by no means boring. Markowitz opens the book to his “favorite” annotation, a page where Twain’s pen has leaked and Twain has stamped the page with his thumbprint, adding “O Damn” as his accompanying text. “Can you image?’ Markowitz exclaims. “A Twain collector would go nuts over this. This says so much about who he was at the time. It also tells us a great deal about American history and culture. So even though it’s a ‘literary’ item, I contend that it’s an Americana piece as well. This sale is actually very balanced between types of Americana: we have material from celebrities, royalty, literary figures, cultural heroes, Presidents, classical musicians, and everything in between. In that way it’s sort of a prototypical Swann’s sale.”

From this point on our discussion veers off from the Autographs sale in particular to Swann’s sales and business dealings in general. “In many ways this Autographs sale is Swann’s standard and representative sale – it includes varied lots touching on fields as disparate as the American Revolution, authors and writers, celebrities, royals, and many more. It also contains material of the sort that Swann doesn’t usually include in an autograph sale, such as the Lindberg material, but it’s material that we believe will be of great interest historically and thus to book and autograph collectors,” says Markowitz. His statement leads me to ask him what constitutes a “typical” Swann sale. His answer is quite revealing a glimpse into the world of the auction houses in general: “In all of our sales, we try to include something for everyone. This is true both of content and of values. We are very aware of maintaining a range of values in our sales. We try to keep the minimum value of our sales lots at $500, with obviously no cap on the maximum. For this sale [Autographs], I’d say the average lot value is actually at between $800 and $900, with the prices moving upwards from there.”

I ask how Swann’s ascribes value to a piece or lot. “I ascribe value according to a piece’s historical importance, primarily,” he answers, although he adds that condition and provenance of course play a role, though an ever-changing role. “For me, with some material, condition takes a backseat to content. For instance, there’s a great deal of difference between a George Washington letter in fine condition asking someone to dinner and a not so fine George Washington letter writing to someone about crossing the Delaware. And of course, one could argue that ultimately value equals what the piece will bring at auction.” I then inquire about how – logistically – this Autographs sale was put together. “I’d probably say that it was put together in the same way that most of our sales are put together. We get material in a variety of ways: through that person that ‘finds’ some $10,000 item in their attic, from estate sales, from collectors who are divesting parts of their collections, etc.” Is it solely his job to put together these sales, I ask? “I do everything from appraisals of items that come in the door to research to writing descriptions for auctions to taking care of all the little details that need to be taken care of when you run an auction. Sometimes I’m even an auctioneer,” he adds, “but not often.” I ask if he likes his job. “What’s not to like?” he says. “I get to sit around and read and research and write all day. It’s a wonderful job. What I love about manuscripts and the manuscript business is the connection to the actual person. Like with the Susan B. Anthony piece – she actually touched that paper. She wrote with that ink. Through manuscripts you are given a very real window into the past.”