Poe rarity sells for $662,500 at N.Y. auction

December 04, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

It couldn't look any less impressive, this pocket-size, 40-page pamphlet self-published by an unidentified Boston author back in 1827. "Tamerlane and Other Poems" sold for $662,500 at Christie's auction house this afternoon in New York, according to Christie's officials. There is no word on the buyer.

This collection of poems is the rarest of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia, a first edition of his first published work. Twelve copies of "Tamerlane and Other Poems," whose author is identified only as "A Bostonian," are known to exist (only 50 were printed). The one that went up for bid today, which has a few small notches on the outer and lower margins, was one of only two in private hands. Christie's officials have estimated its value at $500,000 to $700,000.

"You could probably say it's the Holy Grail of 19th-century American literature or American poetry," says Francis Wahlgren, a rare-books specialist who served as the auctioneer at the sale.

So rare, in fact, that there's not a single copy in Baltimore, the city where Poe began his professional writing career, where he died in 1849 and was buried, and which has spent the past year celebrating one of its favorite sons at every available opportunity. The nearest copy is in Philadelphia, in the collection of the Free Library there; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville used to have a copy, but that one was stolen in the 1970s.

"It's the rarest book in American literature," says Susan Jaffe Tane, a New York rare-book collector who owns the only other copy of "Tamerlane" in private hands.

Sadly, unless someone around Baltimore has a spare half-million dollars they're not talking about, it appears unlikely the city will be getting its own copy of "Tamerlane" anytime soon.

"I'm not aware of any collectors in the Baltimore region who might be willing to bid on 'Tamerlane,'" says Jeff Savoye of the Poe Society of Baltimore. "I have, however, asked for it for Christmas."

Adds Gabrielle Dean, a curator and librarian who's in charge of the Poe collection at the Johns Hopkins University's Sheridan Libraries, "We definitely have looked at the auction catalog online, and we've salivated. But half a million dollars for one pamphlet, versus half a million dollars that could be used for other books and equipment we need. ... If someone wants to give it to us, we would be certain it would be loved and cared for."

"Tamerlane" is a 403-line poem telling the story of a 14th-century warrior who opts for power over love, and later comes to regret his decision. The book, self-published when some scholars believe Poe was struggling to escape the influence of his domineering adoptive father back in Richmond, Va., includes eight other poems.

Until it was sold at auction, the "Tamerlane" was owned by William E. Self, an 88-year-old former movie and television producer who bought it for $150,000 in 1990. Since then, he has kept what was certainly the crown jewel of his rare-book collection in a safety-deposit box, taking it out for the occasional visitor or to admire it himself. But the time has come, he says, for it to move on.

"I'm 88 years old, and I have to do something with my collection," Self says over the phone from New York, where he plans to attend the auction. "My children are interested in the books, but very honestly, they can't afford to inherit them where they'd have to pay the taxes on them."

Christie's Wahlgren said he expects the new owner of "Tamerlane" will be a private collector, possibly from another country, looking to add some serious distinction to his or her collection. "Institutions don't always have that level of funding," he says. "It's the kind of book that many collectors would consider as making their collection extra-special."

That would be fine with Self, who would prefer to see his copy remain in private hands. "Being a private collector myself, I always felt shut out when big universities or something would come in. It would be nice if somebody were to like Poe and would be able to get his book."

Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, would like to put forth a proposal. "It would just be fantastic to have something that rare on display at the Poe House for people to see. We would have to have a new display case made just for that particular item, with all the necessary climate-controlled environment. But that is something we could definitely work with."

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