A Delayed Auction Raises Legal and Financial Issues
South Carolina tried one more argument, which may sound something of a caution for others who find themselves in a predicament similar to Willcox. They cited state law declaring public records property of the state. However, the Court found no laws establishing letters once possessed by the Governor were in fact public records. Perhaps the decision would have been different if what Willcox possessed was clearly a public record, such as the State's copy of the Declaration of Independence. South Carolina made one last try, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court declined to hear the appeal. This paved the way for the auction that took place on September 29 last.
So the saga had its conclusion at the end of an auctioneer's gavel, as Mr. Wilcox wished, but this proved to be only a semi-happy ending for him. Herein lies the economic issue. Willcox's original appraisal put the value of the collection at $2.4 million. That was perhaps more a retail estimate than an auction one. Still, "expert" opinion led Willcox to believe he would receive something in the area of $2 million for his documents. When the final lot was hammered down, the three Lee letters had sold for $61,000, and the total proceeds were said to be a bit short of $400,000. A fair chunk of that was needed to pay for the appraisal and lawyers. Willcox reportedly expressed disappointment, which would certainly be a rational emotion to feel. Actually, uncontrollable grief would have been more appropriate.
What happened? Well, perhaps the appraisal was a bit generous, the expectations too high. There has been no indication of serious problems with the marketplace. It is true the internet has depressed the value of some books by revealing that "rare" material is not always so rare as once believed, but these were one of a kind documents. And, their subject, the Civil War, remains a strong field.
The auction venue may not have been ideal for material of this caliber. It was held at Bill Mishoe's Auction House and Estate Services of Columbia, South Carolina. That may be in the heart of Dixie, and the original source of this material, but it is not the heart of major collectible auctions. Besides, Mishoe's specializes more in antique furniture and the like, more likely to be purchased by local collectors. If there was a substantial campaign to promote the material, we missed it. Two weeks earlier, a valuable first edition Book of Mormon was auctioned at an obscure house in Geneva, New York, but still brought in a very strong $100,000+ price. However, this was just one item, with a following of a limited number of well-heeled potential buyers. Enough of them found out. This auction included 444 Civil War items, which would appeal to a large but widely dispersed number of collectors. However, it is unlikely all that many were aware, and its location in Columbia, without a bidding website, would have significantly limited the number of potential buyers. Certainly, a collection appraised at $2.4 million, even generously appraised at $2.4 million, should go for more than $400,000. This doesn't make much sense, or cents.