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The Greatest Book Sale

June 2024
6min read

Timing is everything in music—and in business. Jerome Kern demonstrated this twin truth in the most impressive way.

As it does with bowerbirds and pack rats, the urge to collect things lies deep within the human soul, and its endless manifestations can reveal that soul in startling ways.

Sometimes the results of collecting are positive to the point of revolution. Charles Darwin’s childhood passion for insects cannot be unconnected with his subsequent career. More often, collections are merely curious. This country is fairly dotted with small museums displaying the paper-weights, farm implements, tea cozies, circus wagons, shaving mugs, swizzle sticks, and what-have-yous that otherwise forgotten citizens spent lifetimes gathering.

Not surprisingly, when a passion for collecting happens to coincide with vast financial resources, the results can be sublime. In New York City the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library are exquisite examples of the synergy that is possible among money, taste, and the urge to own. That both have been open to the public for decades testifies to the fact that private passions often result in common benefit.

Recently William S. Gates, the founder of Microsoft, spent no less than $30.8 million on a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest price ever paid for a single book. (Of course, while $30.8 million might seem like a lot of money to most of us, it represents only about one-half of one percent of Mr. Gates’s net worth, about what $5,000 is to a mere millionaire.)

Whether the purchase of the Leonardo manuscript is the splashy start of a great collection or only a one-time indulgence, no one—perhaps not even Bill Gates—now knows. But it brings to mind another book collection, that of the Broadway composer Jerome Kern. Kern’s collection, however, is best remembered not for its start or eventual size, but for the spectacular auction that dispersed it. For while an exquisite sense of timing is, naturally, a pre-requisite to being a great composer, Kern, apparently, had a knack for timing even when not writing music.

Kern was used to having money, for he was born into a family that was not only in comfortable financial circumstances but also well connected to New York’s Jewish elite. And Kern’s personal success came very early, as it does in fact to most composers who make it big. “Don’t You Want to Spoon With Me?,” his first top-of-the-charts song hit (the charts in those days recorded sheet-music sales), was written in 1905, when he was just twenty.

As Kern entered his thirties, he had a string of hit songs behind him and was beginning to write entire scores for both New York and London productions. With his swiftly rising income, he began to indulge his pleasures seriously. He loved baseball and the New York Giants, for instance, so when both his cars turned out to be out of action on the day of an important game, he simply went out and bought a third in order to get himself to the Polo Grounds.

But even more than baseball, Kern loved collecting, including stamps, coins, and antique English silver. Like all serious collectors, he became deeply knowledgeable about what he collected. But more and more Kern’s interests centered on books. It is possible he was inspired by Harry B. Smith, one of Broadway’s leading lyricists at the turn of the century, who had supplied the words for some of Kern’s earliest song hits. Smith had been an avid book collector for years, and the prize of his collection was the autographed manuscript of Keats’s great sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” It was Harry Smith, recognizing the manic extremes to which collectors can go, who coined the dictum that “one should not truthfully call himself a collector until he has acquired his first duplicate.” As Kern’s passion grew, it was not long before he had many duplicates in his collection of English and American first editions and manuscripts of the preceding three centuries.

As with so many collections, making room for his books became a serious problem. In 1918 Kern and his beloved wife, Eva, built a large house in Bronxville, in the northern suburbs of New York City. But it wasn’t long before Kern had to add a whole new room for his books. The room was soundproofed, and its main purpose, supposedly, was to give Kern a quiet place in which to write music. But the vast space, fully twenty-four feet square, was lined with bookshelves and cabinets made of rich honey-colored chestnut to hold his book collection. To be sure, bookshelves and wooden paneling make for excellent acoustics, but there are cheaper ways to achieve the same effect than lining the walls with first editions of Thackeray, Fielding, Dickens, and Poe.

The 1920s were a great decade for book collectors, and Kern acquired ferociously. As with stocks, prices rose more or less steadily as rising incomes allowed more and more people to compete for the utterly fixed supply of bibliographic rarities. To give just one example, Kern had bought an autographed copy of Elizabeth Barrett’s first published work, “The Battle of Marathon,” for $1,650 at the beginning of the decade. “Published” in an edition of fifty copies when the poet was only twelve, as a present from her father, only twenty copies were known to remain when Kern bought it. By the end of the decade, examples of this charming bit of juvenilia were being sold at around $5,000.

But as collections often do, Kern’s books were taking up more and more time from his other interests. His career, reaching its peak in the late 1920s with his immortal Show Boat , kept him traveling frequently between New York and London. His always busy social life kept him up to all hours of the night. His family was getting shorter and shorter shrift.

The Kern marriage was a very solid one, and he adored his daughter, Betty, who had been born in 1918. But Eva Kern was shy and inclined to be nervous. In 1927 she suffered a breakdown. She needed her husband much more now, and something had to give. Kern slowly decided that it had to be his book collection.

He couldn’t bear to part with it all at once, but in November 1927, a month before Show Boat opened on Broadway, he authorized the sale of 347 books, mostly duplicates and lesser works. The sale also included first editions of Robinson Crusoe and Gray’s “Elegy.” The latter went for a very impressive $4,000, and the whole sale brought in more than $28,000.

Perhaps this first sale brought home to Kern, who considered himself, not altogether correctly, an excellent businessman, how much his entire collection might be worth. For as the twenties drew to a close, the rare-book market was becoming as feverish as Wall Street, and The New York Times reported that “for the last two years the whole book world has been informed that there were no more good books to be had.” Jerome Kern, of course, knew exactly where world-class rare books could be had. He owned no fewer than 1,488 of them. He also knew that selling them would please Eva immensely, greatly simplify his life, and provide him with “an escape from my slavery.”

Prices paid at the Kern sale have never been equaled, and if inflation is factored in, many remain unchallenged.

Kern agreed to allow the Anderson Gallery in New York City, headed by the country’s leading book dealer, Mitchell Kennerly, to handle the sale. He and Kennerly hoped that the books might fetch upward of a million dollars. But the latter thought that so large a collection had to be disposed of carefully, allowing the market time to digest it. So he arranged for the sale to be held in two parts of five sessions each. The first part was to begin on January 7, 1929, and stretch over four days. The second part was to be held two weeks later.

It turned out that Kennerly need not have worried about the market’s ability to digest, for what can be described only as a bibliographic feeding frenzy erupted at the very first session and continued unabated for the remaining nine. The copy of “The Battle of Marathon” that Kern had paid $1,650 for sold for $17,500. By January 9 the Times was reporting that an autographed copy of Robert Burns’s poems had sold for $23,000, which it believed was more than the poet had earned in his lifetime.

Two days later the Kern book sale was on the front page when the session held the night before brought in $615,337. To put it mildly, prices were wild. A single page of the manuscript of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary went for $11,000, six times what Kern had paid for it only a few years earlier. To be sure, it is the only autograph page that still exists, but one scholar pointed out that at that rate the entire manuscript would have sold for more than $4.5 billion. A copy of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers went for $28,000, as did the only known first printing of Tom Jones . The autograph manuscript of Shelley’s Queen Mab went for a staggering $68,000.

Altogether, the sale raised $1,729,462. The world of rare books would know nothing like such prices again for more than fifty years; the Great Depression did for first editions exactly what it did for stocks. When Lord Rothschild, eight years later, bought the copies of The Pickwick Papers and Tom Jones that Kern had sold for $56,000, he had to pay less than $17,000. Some of the prices at the Kern sale have never been equaled, and if inflation is factored in, many remain unchallenged.

Kern can only have been elated with the success of the sale. But the night after the last session, when he went home to Bronxville, he had to confront his now-empty bookshelves. The highly polished wormholed chestnut wood was as beautiful as ever, but the shelves were bare and forlorn. To console himself, Kern the next morning went to Temple Scott’s Neighborhood Book Shop at Seventy-third Street and Madison Avenue and bought a rare book.

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