Christie’s Sale of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane Sets Record Price for American Literature

An extremely rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane and Other Poems , the author’s first published work, broke a record for American literature at a Christie’s auction in New York on Friday when it realized $662,500. 

You can view Christie’s online catalog here for a description of the lot, provenance, etc. 

Only twelve copies of this very ordinary looking forty page pamphlet have been found — and one of these, the University of Virginia copy, actually disappeared from Alderman Library Special Collections back in the early 1970s.  It is believed that no more than fifty copies of the book were printed when Poe, while living in Boston in 1827, secured a journeyman printer named Calvin F.S. Thomas to help him publish the work anonymously.    

Of the twelve known copies, only two are in private hands and likely to find their way to auction, as William Self’s copy did Friday.  The rest are owned by institutions.   

I had the pleasure of seeing one of these two privately owned copies, the Susan Jaffe Tane copy, at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, some years ago.  This, the twelfth and last copy to turn up, was discovered in a New Hampshire antique barn in early 1988, then auctioned at Sotheby’s.          

For many years Tamerlane and Other Poems was known only from a brief reference in Poe’s second work, Al Aaraaf, where he referred to the little pamphlet as having been “suppressed.” 

It was not until 1860, eleven years after Poe’s death, that the first copy of Tamerlane turned up — Poe himself even seems not to have retained a copy.  After that, there were occasional finds until the publication of Vincent Starrett’s Saturday Evening Post article in 1927, “Have You a Tamerlane in Your Attic?,” literally drove a few from the dusty attics of New England and New York.

At any rate, the still anonymous buyer of the Self copy now has the pleasure of being one of the few who can own the book that’s sometimes called the “black tulip” or “holy grail” of American literature.

If you’d like to learn more about Edgar Allan Poe’s life, Greensboro Public Library’s holdings include the recent Poe:  A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd, and Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe:  Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, the latter of which is probably the best biography of the famous writer.  We also have many collections of Poe’s poetry and prose.

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3 Responses

  1. You are cordially invited to a free exhibition
    at the Boston Public Library

    The Raven in the Frog Pond:
    Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston

    December 17, 2009 – March 31, 2010

    For more information, please see:
    http://www.bc.edu/offices/pubaf/news/Poe_Exhibit2009_1202.html

    P.S. Susan Tane’s copy of Tamerlane will be part of the Boston exhibit.

  2. Hello Dan. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to know of your exhibition. Regards, Tim

  3. […] Tamerlane and Other Poems. This was the first book written by Edgar Allan Poe and was published anonymously with the author named as only "a Bostonian." The book of poems was said to be written when Poe was only 14 years old. In December of 2009, a copy of this rare book (one of only 12 known) was sold at Christie’s auction house for $662,500, making it the most valuable piece of American literature ever sold. […]

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