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.

Rare Book Found in Toilet to be Auctioned

Here’s a neat AP story about a rare 1st edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which will be auctioned at Christie’s in London on Tuesday.  The story seems to have originated with this report from the Oxford Daily Mail

The irony is that the book was kept on someone’s toilet bookshelf in Oxford, England, for many years — and now is expected to bring as much as $99,000 at auction!  The owner is said to have paid only a few shillings for the book when it was purchased some forty years ago.

You can find a description of the book on the Christie’s page here.

The story begs the question:  what unrecognized treasures might you have languishing on the bookshelves at your home?  For things like this happen all the time.

For example, back in the 1920s a book collector and Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast named Vincent Starrett wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post called, I believe, “Have You a Tamerlane in Your Attic?”  Starrett of course referred to the great rarity, Tamerlane and Other Poems, Poe’s first published work, which he published anonymously in 1827.

As it turned out, a lady who read that article actually did have a Tamerlane in her attic (I think she lived in an attic apartment).  She tried to contact Starrett about it, but, missing him, instead gave her business to a prominent Boston bookseller named Charles Goodspeed — and the two of them made quite a good little profit.

About twenty years or so ago the twelfth and last copy of Tamerlane turned up in an antique shop in New Hampshire.  The man who bought it just paid fifteen dollars, then sold it at auction for a little under $200,000.

At any rate, if you’ve got a book or any kind of collectible which you think may be valuable, Greensboro Public Library may be able to help you identify the item and get some idea of its value, though, of course, we cannot do formal appraisals.  For that, you should go to a reputable antiques dealer or the appropriate specialist, e.g., a seller of fine and rare books. 

But we have lots of books — too many and varied to mention — and other resources, such as our p4A Antiques Reference Database of auction records, which you may find helpful in researching an item.  As another example, sometimes local history resources, such as our old Greensboro city directories, can be useful in determining when a local item was manufactured.

By all means, if you have something you’d like to research, please feel free to contact us (335-5430) at the Informations Services desk at Central Library.  We’d be glad to help in any way we can.

Surviving Fragments of World’s Oldest Bible “Reunited” Online

Thanks to the Internet, the world’s oldest Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, surviving fragments of which have been housed in four different libraries for over 150 years, is now reunited and available to researchers.

Hand written in Greek some 1,600 years ago, only a little more than half of the original text survives.  Parts of the book are held by the British Library in London, the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, the National Library of Russia and Leipzig University Library in Germany.

But now, thanks to a four-year British Library digitization project, the known fragments have been brought together again online so that scholars may view them as a whole.  Archivists there are hopeful improved scholarly access will produce clues to the origins of the manuscript, among other things.

Central Library in downtown Greensboro has a large section on religion, as well as many books on the Bible and its history.  If interested, try some of these recent titles:  The Sisters of Sinai:  How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Lost Gospels by Janet Soskice; A Visual History of the English Bible:  The Tumultuous Tale of the World’s Bestselling Book by Donald L. Brake; A User’s Guide to Bible Translations:  Making the Most of Different Versions by David Dewey; 101 Myths of the Bible:  How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History by Gary Greenberg; The Acts of the Apostles:  What Really Happened in the Earliest Days of the Church by Gerd Lüdemann; The African Presence in the Bible:  Gospel Sermons Rooted in History by William D. Watley and Raquel Annette St. Clair; Digging Through the Bible:  Understanding Biblical People, Places, and Controversies Through Archaeology by Richard A. Freund; How We Got the Bible:  A Visual Journey by Clinton E. Arnold; The Bible and the People by Lori Anne Ferrell; The Bible:  A Biography by Karen Armstrong; From Eden to Exile:  Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible by Eric H. Cline; Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament by David L. Dungan; Abraham:  The First Historical Biography by David Rosenberg; The Natural History of the Bible:  An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures by Daniel Hillel; How the Bible Was Built by Charles Merrill Smith and James W. Bennett; Misquoting Jesus:  The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman; The Reluctant Parting:  How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush; Where God Was Born:  A Journey By Land to the Roots of Religion by Bruce Feiler; Secrets of the Bible by Richard Horsley & others; The Discovery of God:  Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism by David Klinghoffer; The Bible:  A History:  The Making and Impact of the Bible by Stephen M. Miller & Robert V. Huber; and Secret Origins of the Bible by Tim Callahan.