Sometimes you encounter old friends: Prized Sang material at Sotheby’s ending October 14th

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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Impressive highlights from the sale

Even when the Elsie and Phillip Sang Collection was consigned to a series of auctions forty years ago there was a sense that history was being made when so many remarkable examples were offered in the rooms.  Since then, collectors who have owned Sang material have seen their distinguished provenance has added luster to their collecting of American history.  And now the Sang Foundation is releasing more.   To quote the Edwin Hawkin Singers “Oh Happy Day.”    For collectors and for collections such opportunities are what they live for.

It has been nearly forty years since the fifth and final auction of Highly Important American Historical Documents, Autograph Letters and Documents from the Elsie O. and Philip D. Sang Foundation was held at Sotheby Parke Bernet, but the Sang name still casts a long shadow at Sotheby’s and across the landscape of American manuscript collecting. The variety, quality, and sheer number of extraordinary manuscripts featured in the five Sang Foundation catalogues almost belies belief. Philip Sang, one of the most single-minded of twentieth-century collectors, would have appreciated that many of his most significant items became the foundation stones for many other distinguished collections, private and institutional, including the Forbes Collection and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Sang was a strong supporter of institutions himself, donating material to universities and historical societies like Yale, Brandeis, Southern Illinois, the Chicago Public Library, and the Illinois State Historical Museum, and loaning letters and manuscripts to dozens more for special exhibition.

Unfortunately, none of us can take a time machine back to participate in the Sang Foundation auctions (where else could you bid on a set of presidential autographs featuring in-office documents signed by both William Henry Harrison and James Garfield?), but this month Sotheby’s is offering a very tempting consolation prize in the form of an online auction, closing October 14, consisting of a hidden tranche of American manuscripts and other property collected by Mr. and Mrs. Sang and consigned by a descendant.

The strengths of the current Sang sale are, not surprisingly, similar to those of the earlier auctions, with an especially fine selection of presidential letters, led by a moving Abraham Lincoln letter, lost from sight since it was sent in 1864, thanking a schoolboy on behalf of “all the children of the nation” for his efforts to ensure “that this war shall be successful, and the Union be maintained and perpetuated” ($700,000/$1,000,000).

 

Great letters by early Presidents are to be expected, and they are present here: John Adams discussing the site of the Federal government, appointments to the first Supreme Court, and his view of the vice presidency in a 1789 letter to Benjamin Rush ($35,000/$50,000) and Thomas Jefferson revealing in wide-ranging 1804 letter to Philip Mazzei his complete confidence in the "incalculable value" of the just-completed Louisiana Purchase ($100,000/$150,000).

 

But what stands out here is the fascinating content of a number of the letters by twentieth-century Presidents: Teddy Roosevelt complaining to the editor of the New York Sun about “faked” news ($4,000/$6,000); Woodrow Wilson confiding to a pacifist supporter why he is constrained from publicly speaking for peace ($3,000/$5,000); FDR discussing an extension of Social Security benefits to include hospitalization ($3,000/$5,000); and Harry Truman congratulating Emily Greene Balch on being awarded the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize—something the official website of the Nobel Prize claims never happened ($2,000/3,000).

 

         

 

Sang’s collecting was always supported by his wife, Elsie, who not only became very familiar with the material her husband was collecting, but who also expanded the collection into women’s history and popular music. Mrs. Sang’s hand is particularly evident in the upcoming auction, especially in a fine selection of letters by wives of Presidents, including many who served as First Lady.

Letters by First Ladies include Abigail Adams to Mrs. Elbridge Gerry, informing her that her diplomat husband has arrived safely in Paris, addressed and franked by President Adams ($8,000/$12,000); Dolley Madison quoting an Independence Day toast composed by her husband ($1,200/$1,800); Lucretia Garfield reporting to Queen Victoria after her husband had been shot by Charles Guiteau ($3,500/$5,000); and Florence Harding writing to her brother, first about the campaign trail, then about life in the White House ($2,500/$3,500).

 

Also falling under rubric of women’s history are Ulysses S. Grant pardon of the three election officials who registered Susan B. Anthony to vote in the 1872 presidential election ($40,000/$60,000) and two letters by Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, thought to be the only woman surgeon formally engaged for field duty during the Civil War $2,000/$3,000).

 

The highlight of the music section has to be the autograph manuscript signed of Stephen Foster’s “Maggie By My Side” ($60,000/$80,000), the first Foster music manuscript to appear at auction in thirty years and evidently one of only three to be sold at auction since at least 1900. But Gershwin material is most in evidence, including a presentation copy of one of the earliest appearances of a piano solo arrangement for Rhapsody in Blue ($4,000/6,000); a wonderful inscribed photograph to Maxie Rosenzweig, the violin prodigy who first inspired George Gershwin to be a musician ($3,500/$5,000); and the autograph manuscript signed of “Who Cares?” from Of Thee I Sing ($20,000/$30,000).

 

As befits a Sang sale, there is more besides, from figures and events both well known and obscure.

 

Link to site [bidding is now live – sale ending 10/14].  Click here.

 

Link to Auction

 

Link for questions