The estate of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr will auction the civil rights leader’s entire collection of more than 10,000 documents, including the text of his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech, as a single lot this month.
“This collection is without question the most important American archive of the 20th century in private hands,” said David Redden, the vice-chairman of Sotheby’s, the auctioneer that will conduct the sale on June 30.
The collection was too important to be sold piecemeal, he said, and the estate, which has struggled to find a suitable home for it since the death of King’s widow Coretta Scott King in February, required that it be kept together.
“The Martin Luther King, Jr collection belongs in a major public institution and we hope that will be the result of this sale process,” he said.
Sotheby’s has put an estimate of $15m to $20m (€12m-€16m, £8m-£11m) on it, a broad range that reflects the difficulty in valuing such historic personal collections.
The archives of Sir Winston Churchill were sold about four years ago for £20m ($37m, €29m) but that was a private sale which also required that the collection remain in the UK.
Technically, a foreigner could buy the King collection, said Mr Redden, but he added: “I think Americans will outbid anyone else in the world for their own history. . . This country is filled with philanthropists.”
The collection consists of King’s papers and his personal library, dating from 1946 to his death in 1968. It ranges from a Morehouse University exam paper on the Bible, through his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, to papers he was working on just before his death.
Sotheby’s said that much of the collection was previously unpublished. It has the texts from almost all his important speeches.
There are also telegrams and letters to King from public figures of the day, and items from the daily ephemera of his life, such as cancelled cheques and credit card receipts, and the letter sent to the Lovett School by King and his wife when it rejected their application to enrol their son Martin in the Episcopalian school.
The non-profit King Center in Atlanta, where most of the collection has been housed, has been physically crumbling, with the survival of many documents endangered. The remainder of the collection was at the home of Coretta Scott King.
The centre is operating at a deficit and has been the source of argument among the Kings’ four children. Dexter Scott King, the chairman of the centre’s board, has initiated plans to sell some of its buildings, including the house nearby where King was born.
The move was opposed by Martin Luther King III, the eldest child who is a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by King. The two sons have clashed over the years, and Coretta Scott King had often brokered peace between them.