Bits of history have value beyond price

COLLECTIBLES

March 15, 1992|By Linda Rosenkrantz | Linda Rosenkrantz,Copley News Service

Certainly no one could call the 1990-'91 season a banner year for the art world. And yet, with the spotlight softened on record-crunching prices, something interesting starts to happen -- attention starts to refocus on the objects themselves.

This was brought to mind while perusing the annual self-celebration of one of the world's major auction houses, "Sotheby's Art at Auction 1990-91" (Sotheby's Publications Ltd./Rizzoli International).

Looking beyond the relatively few record paintings sold, one finds a rich agglomeration of objects that are fascinating in and of themselves. To prove my point, I won't even tell you the prices they fetched.

Consider, for instance, the historical resonance of some of the autographed letters and manuscript material that came on the block.

Most highly publicized was one of only 24 surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap in Philadelphia on July 4 or 5, 1776. This item became national news because of its discovery: A collector of antique stocks and bonds bought a tattered old painting at a Philadelphia flea market for $4. Removing it from its frame when he got home, he found a folded sheet of paper in the backing of the frame and immediately recognized it as the historic treasure it was.

Other items in this category include the earliest surviving dated writing of Abraham Lincoln -- an 1824 schoolboy arithmetic notebook; a four-page document marking the beginning of the Armada Campaign in England, signed Elizabeth R and dated 1587; the long-lost original autographed composing manuscript of Mozart's Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor, one of the composer's most glorious works for solo piano, and a two-letter 1932 correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

Linda Rosenkrantz edited Auction magazine and is the author of five books, including "Auction Antiques Annual." Write Collect, c/o Copley News Service, P.O. Box 190, San Diego, Calif. 92112-0190. Letters cannot be answered personally.

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