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Bidders at the auction of the now-dissolved James S. Copley Library, held at Sotheby’s in New York City on April 14, drove the price of a 75-word letter signed by one Button Gwinnett to a phenomenal $722,500. That’s $9633.33 per word — and the obscure member of the Continental Congress from Georgia didn’t even pen the letter himself. A scribe wrote the message; Gwinnett and others merely signed it on July 12, 1776. But his signature is the most sought after by members of a very small club, who collect examples of signatures by each of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson said there were only two bidders, but at an auction that’s all it takes.

A collector’s personality is often revealed in what he or she chooses to collect, but Jim Copley didn’t begin seriously collecting early Americana until less than a decade before his death, using a Copley executive named Richard Reilly as his scout. After Copley died, the collecting, like his newspaper empire, continued under the direction of an entirely different personage — his widow Helen — with, by some accounts, the help of her son David. So there’s no real sense in analyzing the library contents — some 2000 letters, documents, manuscripts, books, pamphlets, broadsides, maps, etc. — on the psychological level. Besides, the collection and its dispersal have other stories to tell.

The consignor of the James S. Copley Library is Copley Press Inc., with Gurr Johns Inc. acting as its agent — i.e., for doing the deal and handling the logistics, the “Valuers and Fine Art Consultants” get their percentage, just as Sotheby’s gets theirs. The reason for the sale, according to a prepared statement by Gurr Johns president Elizabeth von Habsburg, was the library’s “wish to share” the historical wealth “with a broader audience.” But if that were the goal, the library could have done it much more effectively in other ways. Just one idea: elimination of the requirement, stated on the library’s former website, that any potential visitor needed to submit “letters of recommendation from two people of recognized standing in the academic field who can testify to his or her qualifications as a scholar.”

Undoubtedly, the sale is part of Copley Press’s continuing campaign to raise cash by selling its assets, even in down markets.

When asked last month for a list of researchers who had made use of the library, a spokesperson said the registry had, just hours earlier, been hauled away to be destroyed, along with other library records. After all, the building that had housed the collection in La Jolla since 1982 was itself on the market.

That the library would be jettisoned by David Copley isn’t all that surprising. He is known for his passion for collecting such things as motion-picture fashion illustrations — e.g., Cecil Beaton’s original sketches for the costumes Audrey Hepburn wore in My Fair Lady — not for any love of scribblings by our Founding Fathers. Still, the library was his parents’ pride.

By one estimate, it took 22 years for the library to complete its collection of all 56 Declaration of Independence signers. It took only a couple of hours to disperse the bulk of it (a few signatures were held back for future sales), along with 188 other historical documents, including letters by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as items either handwritten or signed by others who loom large in the early history of this country.

Someone paid $5313 for an Abigail Adams thank-you note. Another bidder spent $7500 for a love letter by Benedict Arnold. A third plunked down $25,000 for a letter by John Hancock discussing, among other things, employment for his brother. The final bid for a letter by Declaration of Independence signer Joseph Hewes of North Carolina was $53,125. The price for an example of writing by another North Carolinian signer, William Hooper, was $206,500.

All told, the final take for this first of four scheduled sales at Sotheby’s was $4,362,884. Not an inconsiderable sum, it was still below what the auction house predicted the sale would bring. That’s because about a dozen key lots (including a number of George Washington items) didn’t sell at all, while a letter signed by Abe Lincoln, which had been expected to sell for $500,000 to $700,000, fetched “only” $482,500.

Asked to characterize the sale and its results, a prominent antiquarian-book dealer who attended the auction said, “I’d say the overall results were not bad but that overestimating and overreserving of lots hurt the sale because it reduced participation by potential bidders.”

Translation: “Reserve” is the term for the price below which a consignor won’t allow an item to be sold. Reserves are invariably employed at auction houses like Sotheby’s, while smaller houses may use them only on their biggest-ticket items. Reserves are tied to estimates, which are expressed in a range of low to high and made public in a sale’s printed catalog, while reserves are not. But reserves are generally understood to be about two-thirds of an estimate’s lower number.

One would think that bidders would know what they wanted to spend on something by the time an auction begins, and for the most part they do, but they also like to play the game. They like to bid. If a reserve is too high, requiring them to start their bidding at or near the level where they expect to end up, they may rebel by refusing to play.

Remember, we’re talking here about little pieces of paper, not anything that anybody actually needs.

Why Copley Press chose to be hard-nosed when offering these items, when it has been willing to sacrifice so many other assets, not the least of which was the Union-Tribune, is anybody’s guess. In any event, the dealer added, “Despite [the unsold lots], the sale did quite well.”

Surely, he was thinking above all about the Gwinnett signature, whose buyer chose to ignore its $500,000 to $700,000 estimate, willing to pay slightly above.

Incidentally, the letter’s provenance — i.e., its chain of custody going back to its beginning — has an ironic link, bonding forever Helen Copley with another rich widow. Here’s the story.

The letter’s recipient — the person to whom Gwinnett was writing in the first place — was John Ashmead, clerk of the Revolutionary War–era frigate Randolph. (He was also a member of an infantry company, and Gwinnett wanted him to remain at sea instead of joining that company. He complied.) The letter was handed down in Ashmead’s family, spent some time stored in a box in an outhouse (if the lore is to be believed), and eventually found its way to auction for the first time in 1927, where it sold for $51,000. More than 20 years later, in 1948, that owner sold it for an unknown sum to the widow of oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, who was implicated in, but acquitted for, his role in the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s.

Like Helen Copley, Carrie Estelle Betzold Doheny was a second wife, and like her, she held an office job before her auspicious marriage. Helen was once Jim Copley’s secretary; Carrie Estelle was a telephone operator. Carrie Estelle and Helen had something else in common: rare books. While Helen took up rare-book collecting where Jim left off when he died, Carrie Estelle began a rare-book collection from scratch, in her dead husband’s honor. Each also built a library building.

Carrie Estelle’s was the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. Like Helen, Carrie Estelle, who died in 1958, expected her library to be permanent. Instead, the Doheny Library contents were sold on behalf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in a series of seven sales at Christie’s in New York City, London, and elsewhere between 1987 and 1989.

At the Doheny sale in New York on February 22, 1989, the Copley Library got its Gwinnett (thereby completing its set of signers) for $209,000. The return on that investment, then, has obviously been considerable, showing the Copley Press has made at least one good deal lately — except, of course, it was never intended to be an investment. And one has to wonder if Helen, in plucking that document from the dissolved Doheny collection, sensed a foreshadowing — or else swore to herself that what had happened to Carrie Estelle would never happen to her.

Some years earlier, on July 23, 1983, on KGTV’s program Eye on San Diego, Richard Reilly, the library’s erstwhile scout, then curator (and now its curator emeritus who, like the library spokesperson, declined to be quoted for this report), told the program’s moderator, John Beatty, “The James Copley Library is really a love story. It’s the story of a man’s love for his books and manuscripts and a love story of Helen Copley for Jim Copley and her wish that all of his books and manuscripts would be preserved forever and housed in this building.”

Reilly was speaking shortly before he had completed a book about the library. Published by Copley Press, it was called A Promise Kept: The Story of the James S. Copley Library. The title refers to the fact that Helen not only kept collecting but also built the building as a kind of monument to Jim. In fact, many of the library’s best pieces were bought by her long after Jim’s 1973 death, and that includes the Gwinnett autograph.

The last line of Reilly’s book is this: “One wonderful aspect to the story of the James S. Copley Library is that, seemingly, it has no end.” Well, now it has.

Many citizens of San Diego have expressed regret that the city “lost” the library. But they forget that, despite the historical importance of the material and the proprietary feelings such artifacts engender, the library was never theirs. It was a private entity, owned by a corporation that could do with it what it pleased. Still, one can imagine they’ll feel even more regret when a future sale offers material relating to the settlement of California, going all the way back to the Jesuit missionaries. One piece, a list made by Father Junípero Serra on March 1, 1777, of all the missions he founded in Alta California, is estimated to fetch $250,000 to $350,000. Another California item, dating from 1782, is expected to sell for $300,000 to $500,000. Drawn by the Spanish explorer Juan Pantoja y Arriaga, namesake of a small downtown park, it is one of the earliest surviving maps of the Port of San Diego.

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Visduh April 29, 2010 @ 9 a.m.

Excellent story. I'll have to read it over a couple more times to get all the nuance and flavor, and I look forward to doing just that. Your comment that "[San Diegans] forget that . . . the library was never theirs" was spot-on. Never mind that promises of the unenforceable sort were made that the library would always be there; David's hunger for cash trumps all.

One library that is known to only one in a hundred or one in a thousand Angelenos exists right in central LA. And that one is not going anywhere, and its collection will not be sold off. That's the W. A. Clark Memorial Library on West Adams Avenue. The entire thing, building, collection, and an endowment was bequeathed to UCLA upon the death of Clark's son. UCLA has quietly expanded the collection of rare books many times over. It is odd that the library is located within a couple miles of the USC campus, yet is run by UCLA. Clark, Jr. wanted it to be accessible to the public and determined that the state-run university would be a better custodian than a private university.

Something like that is what SHOULD have happened to the Copley library.


CuddleFish April 29, 2010 @ 9:54 a.m.

Yes, it does seem odd that Helen Copley would not have bequeathed this precious library of hers to a public entity.

I am floored by the quality of this excellent story, BTW.


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