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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.

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Comments

SanDiegoParrothead June 29, 2011 @ 12:44 p.m.

THat Copley guy is an a$$.

Why didn't he donate some of the local stuff (bay map; census) to a local institution so we all could enjoy it?

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Visduh June 29, 2011 @ 2:46 p.m.

He could have "donated" the entire library to a local institution charged with keeping the library open and accessible. He doesn't donate much any more, and shows the local scene no consideration. Money hungry? What other explanation can there be?

The nonsense about sharing the collection is an insult and slap in the face. While in that library, it was available to some scholars, although not the general public. The pieces that fell into the hands of private collectors may never be seen by scholars or the public again.

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Javajoe25 June 29, 2011 @ 3:24 p.m.

Ms. Shinto!

How good it is to read your words again. Nice work on the Copley auction. It is amazing to see what a difference it makes to sell at the "right" auction, or better yet, to a very interested collector. Too bad the locally relevant material wasn't donated to a museum or university here. Seems many of those same institutions are besieged with demands to return significant portions of their holdings to the countries of origin, which leaves the rest of us staring at replicas. I can see the reason for the repatriation, and don't disagree entirely, but I do worry we will all be attending "virtual" museums someday.

Incidentally, I still have my autographed copy of "Shadow Bands," dated May,'89. Another example of fine writing, in my opinion. Hope to see more of your work in The Reader in the future.

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muzzler1023 July 1, 2011 @ 2:14 p.m.

Like David needed another 11 million...selling the paper...killing health benefits for retirees...makes you believe in heaven and hell since there's no justice in this world. Just whose heart did he get - was Scrooge's cryogenically frozen and refurbished just for him??

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poorstreet July 6, 2011 @ 4:02 a.m.

Thanks for the comments, everyone! @Javajoe25: Shadow Bands -- ah, quite a blast from the past. Glad you enjoyed it....!

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