The Historical Auction Series No.2 The H. Bradley Martin Sale 1989-1990


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By Abby Tallmer

This article is the second in a series we at ÆM have launched whose purpose is to examine, explore, analyze, and put into historical and contemporary context great book and manuscript auctions of years past. (The inaugural article, entitled “The Historical Auction Series No.1/The Henry C. Murphy Sale/March 3-March 8, 1884,” is available in ÆM’s archives for July 2003 for those so inclined.) In our present day, rare book and manuscript auctions are sometimes but rarely noted. When they are, they are usually consigned to the “arts” section of one of the major national papers, and they are usually described only in brief; the auction’s results and aftereffects are rarely covered.

Some people might argue that this is because truly major rare book and manuscript sales of uncommon dimension are extremely uncommon in this new millennium. This goes along with the somewhat fallacious argument that “all the really good books are already in institutions, with dealers, or in private hands.” This author would retort that a perusal of Æ’s Upcoming Auctions Module, together with a glance through the collective cumulative auctions whose information is already safely ensconced in the Æ Database, disproves this point. Although they may be less common than they were say a century ago, still many exciting and important book and manuscript auctions of major collections persist in taking place in the present day, and the results are of course being recorded for the analysis and edification of future bookworms.

But back for a second to the premise of this series: the great book and manuscript auctions of the immediate and distant past. A search of the Æ Database uncovers a plethora of major rare book and manuscript auctions, many of which were covered quite thoroughly in the presses and periodicals of their times. In addition, while some of these auctions happened before any of our readers were born, some of the notable auctions transpired well during all of our lifetimes. Such is the case for the auction that is the subject of this story, the H. Bradley Martin sale, held in 9 parts at Sotheby’s New York from June 1989 to June 1990. This auction, although relatively recent, was massively important and was covered as such in the major newspapers of the time.