Dr. Frank T. Siebert: Requiem for a Heavyweight

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Dr. Siebert


Third in a series on important book auctions

By Bruce McKinney

It is first by perseverance and then by luck that book collectors succeed twice. Most do not succeed even once. First you must collect well and then you must sell well. Most collectors today might as well buy lottery tickets as collect books with an honest expectation to succeed on the first count. The gods, dealers, auction houses and luck then determine the small percentage that succeeds when they sell. Dr. Frank T. Siebert, who died in 1997 at age 85 and whose books were sold at auction in 1999, was one of those that succeeded twice. He would have been bemused by his "success." He didn't want to sell his books, either to a dealer who wouldn't pay retail, or at auction, because "they would make a mess of it" according to Bailey Bishop. “He would have preferred they be kept together, but didn't have enough money to endow a library, and knew that if he gave them to an established collection, they would get lost or their condition suffer.” Mr. Bishop, retained to evaluate Dr. Siebert’s books, appraised the collection at more than five million dollars, a surprise to Dr. Siebert’s estranged daughters who didn’t know the collection was so valuable. Mr. Bishop suggested dispersal by auction.

Dr. Siebert's books sold in two auctions at Sotheby's four years ago. The first sale took place on May 21st, 1999, in a high ceiling-ed well-lit room at 1334 York Avenue, at 72nd Street, in New York, where at most forty anxious and apprehensive dealers and collectors plus an unknown number of telephone and order bidders gathered to hear the last rites administered to one of the finest collections of rare and important books in the Americana field to be assembled in the final fifty years of the 20th century. The official title was "The Frank T. Siebert Library of the North American Indian and the American Frontier." The books that sold that day had a long history. Dr. Siebert's part in it begins in the late 1930s.

Dr. Siebert was an opinionated and reclusive collector and he made an early decision to know his field rather than to rely on any one dealer. It was a brilliant and unusual decision then and it remains a rare decision today. Attend a book collectors' group these days and most book collectors you encounter will be disciples of one dealer or another. Dr. Siebert was his own man and he had the first class mind to make it work.