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Sotheby's sale June 11 2013

Fine Books & Manuscripts, June 11, 2013

I’m in this business, so I shouldn’t be bothered. I have been a seller and a buyer, and I’m a card-carrying member of Team Hoarder, AKA the Curators. So why does this bother me?

This sale features a strong selection of modern authors highlighted by Property from the Descendants of William Faulkner, including the manuscript of his Nobel Prize speech with the gold Nobel medal and diploma (1950), autograph letters written to his mother from Paris in 1925, the typescript book of his poem sequence “Vision in Spring” in a handmade binding by the author, drawings, corrected typescripts and other items.

You’d think I’d know better by now: Life isn’t an Indiana Jones movie, and no amount of saying “It belongs in a museum!” will help matters along.

More and more I see the cultural economy–and the disposition of cultural goods–following the “winner takes all” pattern of the larger economy. I give you Walmart, and Walmart gives you the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. The FAQ’s deny any tie to Walmart stores, but Alice Walton founded the museum. For a lot of people, that’s a connection to Walmart. The claim that there is no connection seems even more disingenuous when you visit the homepage and read “General admission to Crystal Bridges is sponsored by Walmart. There is no cost to view the Museum’s permanent collection, which is on view year-round.”

The people of Arkansas deserve a nice museum; everyone does–that’s not my point. My point is that private collectors can buy, and keep from public hands, important pieces of material cultural and cultural heritage. Faulkner’s work post-Nobel may have paled compared to earlier work, but he won the Nobel–score one for Southern Literature and the power of Faulkner’s words, the sway he held over American letters.

Also in what is shaping up to be a very wordy sale: “[O]ne of possibly as few as three intact 1924 recordings of Joyce reading Ulysses.” Joyce reading Ulysses. That’s pretty damn cool. Lucky for you and me, if we’re word fans, you can listen to another recording here, thanks to The Public Domain Review.

Would an online photo, or a magazine photo, of Faulkner’s medal ever be as good as the online version of Joyce’s reading? No,  I don’t think so.  Because there is a power in the authentic, in the real. And the medal is material, three-dimensional: sound waves over an internet speaker wouldn’t be as frisson-inducing as listening to a recording in a darkened library, but they’re still sound waves.

Authenticity will be the subject of an upcoming session at AAM’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore, and though I can’t be there, I’m following as best I can.

Authenticity is something reenactors strive for in their work. Museums present authentic– real– objects and experiences. I sit the gallery and one of the most common questions people ask is, “Is it real?” and when told, “Yes, it is,” they gasp a little.

So when museums and libraries are priced out of the auction or private sale market, what does that mean? It means less public access to authentic items, to the “real,” three-dimensional evidence of the past.

We’re choosy, of course: it could well be that the University of Virginia did not want these items. Perhaps they did not contribute materially to Faulkner scholarship–the medal wouldn’t, really, would it? But the additional papers and letters might, but would be hard to justify at $250,000-$350,000.

Private collectors, people who can afford a $286,000 watch, drive up prices. Museums that can attract major donors attract more major donors.

2011 Income $470,048,040 $157,082,067 $3,440,281 $615,008

That’s a chart of the 2011 income for the Met, the MFA, the RIHS, and the Newport Historical Society. All four have decorative art, art, and textile collections. All four would be interested in pieces of Newport furniture. Two are art museums, two are historical societies. Only one has the financial power to bid for major pieces.

And then there’s Crystal Bridges: 2011 revenue? $625,995,749. Sorry Met, you were just outdone by $155,947,709. Over one hundred and fifty-five million dollars. Dr. Evil is beyond impressed. The Crystal Bridges Form 990 includes a donor list with $700,000 from Cisco Systems. Nicely done. With endowment return of just a little more than $16 million, and  $37 million for “museum procurement expenses,”  they need those donations to stay healthy financially. But that $37 million buys a lot of art.  And where does that leave smaller museums and collecting organizations?

Pretty much where Walmart left small businesses: highly specialized but small.

And what does that mean for Faulkner’s papers, or a Plunket Fleeson chair?

Chances are they’ll be in private hands, accumulating value.