Vintage Books Sales
Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction
Last summer I received a call from a lawyer in
Seattle who had found a packet of old letters and documents among his late
father's possessions. He wanted to know the best way to dispose of them.
It turned out that the young man's grandfather and great-grandfather had
been ardent collectors who had aggressively sought letters and documents
of American Presidents, Civil War generals, and other important 18th and
19th century political figures. The collection sold at auction recently,
netting over $50,000. My client, who knew nothing about the field of
manuscript collecting before he called, was thrilled.
What motivates the manuscript collector?
The manuscript collector does not enjoy the high
profile of the art or furniture collector. To the untrained eye, a
manuscript use that term to refer to any written document, be it a letter,
a contract, a written draft, or an inscription is not intrinsically
beautiful or decorative or artistic. The manuscript collector, however, is
motivated less by aesthetic concerns than by a fascination with a moment
in time or a particular historical figure. Collecting letters and
documents allows us a chance to eavesdrop on history both public and
private. For example, I recently perused an intimate letter from Lord
Nelson to his longtime lover, Lady Hamilton, in which he declares that his
soul is God's but his body is Emma's. Collectors are also driven by a
curiosity to see not just what people write, but how they write. Often,
the handwriting of famous figures is exactly what we expect it to be, as
with Sam Houston's " big as Texas" script, Thomas Edison's
innovative calligraphic signature, and Sigmund Freud's crabbed handwriting
that looks, well, a little bit crazy.
Books & Manuscripts Department
Fine manuscripts and rare books in
collections or as singular items come to Butterfields from private estates
as well as museums and libraries. Among the fields represented are travel
and exploration (including maps and atlases); natural history and
botanicals; Americana, especially California and the West; literature;
bibles; fine press and printing; illustration and the fine arts.