08 June 2007

A Sale of Modern Movement books / Connolly 100

I am away in London - I went to a Sotheby's sale of the collection of books formed by Annette Campbell White - a highly literate San Francisco based money manager (MedVenture Associates.) The collection was based on 'the Connolly 100' - i.e. books listed by Cyril Connolly in his 1965 book-'The Modern Movement. One Hundred Key Books from England, France, and America 1880-1950.' She is said to be to be one of those fortunate persons who 'doesn't need money' and estimates and reserves were high as she would not care if the books came home unsold. A certain number of lots (about 25%) failed to sell - which, given the high reserves, is actually something of a success. The wholse sale made £1.3 million about half a million less than the top expectations. There was little for dealers who were consistently outbid by anonymous collectors. Prices often seemed higher than a dealer would ever think of charging but that is often the case. Paradoxically dealers will often pay more for a good book than the public so outbidding them is a risky game.

Many of the dealers attending were the same chaps who had sold Ms Campbell the books. When a collector wants something like the Connolly 100 you are basically working through a list. Many lots went to the same anonymous bidder (identified by a code number) on the phone who must have spent about £200K, possibly filling gaps in his or her own Connolly 100 collection. They were probably sitting by or in an 'infinity' pool in L.A. over breakfast.

The Gatsby went to the trade at £84K (jacket a bit chipped but a better than normal copy) and a very fresh 'The Sun Also Rises' at £60K. I learnt that the Gatsby jacket is about an eighth of an inch taller than the book and often turns up cut down to size or sadly creased at the overhang but this copy was complete and free of such problems. The first lot of the sale was a very nice 3 decker first of 'The Portrait of a Lady' which made £29K (all these prices including the 20% premium) against an estimate of £7000 - £9000 so it looked like it might be one of those sales where records were broken with every lot. However it was quickly followed by many 'bought in' lots, mostly over estimated French literature. Connolly liked his French books, some of which are now somewhat vieux jeu. I'm thinking of de Montherlant, Malraux and Michaux.

A slightly crumbly first of 'Ubu Roi with a signed presentation from Jarry made just under £3000- a great book but it had been bought in California where the climate is bad for the cheap French paper. If it had been a limpid edition de tete it could have been the most expensive lot in the sale. The auction appeared to be entirely free of French dealers and collectors -probably due to condition problems. The word on the street ( Bond Street that is) was that the stuff had all been bought too recently and was in less than fab condition.

A few trends were discernible - they still love Henry James, Conrad, Hardy, Proust, Waugh, Hemingway, Joyce and Eliot also anything Irish. Greene has gone a little flat but mostly still sold, likewise E.M. Forster (several 'buy- ins'). Hart Crane still works, Ezra Pound seemed a bit lacklustre, Norman Douglas seems to be making a comeback and Arthur Koestler seems to be in abeyance along with Henry Green, Robert Graves and the Sitwells. One remarkable result was a jacketless but decent Tarr (1918) with a nice inscription from Wyndham Lewis to Violet Hueffer (ie Vilolet Hunt.) It made £3600 against a reserve of £500. Lewis although much admired has been a very hard sell of late. Talking of Violet, Ford Madox Ford still rocks with a stunning £21,600 made for 'The Good Soldier' in a colourful but rather chipped (rare) jacket.

The attendees were mostly male, besuited, not young-- however I spotted Jeannette Winterson - she underbid some Woolfs and bought some Eliot and, I think, Macneice. In general American books did better than British and signed stuff was favoured. Conclusion --plenty of money about for the right stuff and the highbrow market is healthy and probably less volatile than the popular literature market. There may even be new blood collecting the Connolly 100...

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