The formally stated reason for dissolving the Copley Library, according to Gurr Johns, was the institution’s “wish to share” its historical wealth “with a broader audience.” But in the end there were very few participants. Reese, who attended all four sales, consistently bought 20 or 25 percent by cash value, either for clients or for stock. Among major lots, he bought the Copley Library’s Declaration of Independence broadside for $572,500 on an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. (He also executed the University of Michigan’s winning bid for the $602,500 Strachey papers.) The private collector of the Button Gwinnett letter bought even more. When the majority of any collection at auction goes to two people, it’s not a good thing.
Other no-sales in the fourth and final auction include an Abraham Lincoln letter ($60,000/$90,000); a couple of John Hancocks ($25,000/$35,000 and $12,000/$18,000, respectively); a Teddy Roosevelt ($5000/$7000); and materials relating to the assassination of President James A. Garfield ($50,000/$80,000).
The trade anticipates that unsold lots from all four sales — with their estimates dialed down — will be reoffered by Sotheby’s in the future. (Indeed, some Emily Dickinson letters sold at a general fine books and manuscripts sale on June 17 for $12,500, although the estimate was a still-overconfident $20,000 to $30,000.) One thing that can’t change, however, is the material’s condition.
“A lot of [it] has faltered because of its physical condition,” said Reese. Condition has “been a factor all along. The whole nature of historical manuscripts is a sense of their immediacy. You’re holding the letter that Washington wrote or Jefferson wrote. And if that thing has been washed, treated, and stuck back together, it doesn’t have the same immediacy as something that’s in nice shape.” Eighteenth-century rag paper is sturdy stuff, more durable than many textiles. “But I think there was a tendency in the 1930s through the ’60s to overrestore things,” Reese explained. “As in furniture today, the modern taste says, ‘This has been just too monkeyed with.’”
This final Copley sale included a few nonpaper items, too — for example, a chair that Lincoln may have sat in; a plaster bust of his head; his bronze life mask; and his portrait, by Douglas Volk, reproduced on the catalog’s cover. All of these sold.
Three other paintings that hung on the Copley Library walls, likewise, went on the block. Two were 19th-century portraits of old, gray men and failed to sell. The third was of none other than James S. Copley himself.
This picture was displayed at Sotheby’s headquarters during auction previews. It would not be sold, according to senior specialist Selby Kiffer, who said it would “go back to the family,” or words to that effect. But when I got to the last lot on the last page of the final catalog, there it was. Painted in tempera on Masonite in 1967 by Peter Hurd (1904–1984), it was offered with a $20,000 to $30,000 estimate. No one bought it. I can’t be the only one wondering what David Copley will do with his father’s portrait now.