Touch of the past

“Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things?”

The “poor prisoner” was John Keats, the most romantic of the romantic poets, writing to his sweetheart Fanny Brawne in 1820, a few months before his death from tuberculosis. The letter is the last by Keats still in private hands, and is expected to sell for more than £100,000 when it goes under the hammer at Bonhams on March 29.

Literary and historical manuscripts have become a byway in the auction world, as Sotheby’s and Christie’s concentrate on selling art and artefacts to buyers who want a visual splash and have little interest in scraps of paper, however evocative and important.

This has left a gap for Bonhams, a saleroom which goes for volume rather than price. The 500-lot collection to be sold in March, which should bring in at least £1m, was assembled by Roy Davids, and is, according to Davids himself, “the best single-owner sale to appear in four decades”. He should know. For many years he headed the books and manuscripts department at Sotheby’s before becoming a manuscripts dealer.

Yet even Davids’ collection cannot compete with that of Albin Schram, sold at Christie’s in 2007, where among the many records set was the £276,000 for a love letter from Napoleon to Josephine, £204,000 for a treatise by Sir Isaac Newton and £84,000 for a Cromwell letter. The Schram auction showed the enduring fascination with great figures of the past: in the US important manuscripts linked to the Founding Fathers or George Washington can expect to top $1m.

The British market reflects the same fascination with national heroes: important autograph letters connected to Nelson or Churchill can now cost up to £10,000. The Davids collection offers some great rarities. A long letter by William Blake about his painting “The Last Judgement”, discovered in a drawer in Petworth House in 1952, is only the third Blake letter to appear at auction in a generation and is estimated at up to £60,000. A letter from Sir Walter Raleigh to Bess of Hardwick, excusing his failure to visit her recently – he had been locked up in the Tower of London – is the first to appear on the market in 35 years and should make £30,000.

Manuscripts offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the famous. Davids has Queen Victoria’s seating plan for her mother’s birthday in 1837 (est £3,000), which shows her keeping enemies apart. There is also the order of service for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (est £8,000), where Wallis Simpson signs her title for the first time. A long letter from David Livingstone to Lord Palmerston relates his adventures exploring the Zambesi in 1861 (est £9,000); an important manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton discusses religion (est £50,000).

More affordably, the Davids auction offers letters and notes by literary giants such as Dickens, Hardy and Henry James for around £1,000, and admirers of contemporary authors, such as PD James or Julian Barnes, can buy a connection for nearer £500.

In Bonham’s general auction on March 22, the star lot carries the signature of William Blake, but it is in a previously unknown copy of the privately printed first collection of his poems, an edition believed to number less than 50 copies. It carries an £80,000 estimate.

Bonhams always includes manuscripts in its three major book auctions a year; Sotheby’s and Christie’s handle manuscripts if they are part of a major collection or have a high lot value. In December Sotheby’s sold a cache of 40 letters relating to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, that made £350,000; in New York on June 17 they will offer illustrated letters by Magritte priced over $200,000.

For anyone keen to acquire a tangible link with the past this is an inexpensive and accessible collecting field. Antiquarian book dealers such as Maggs and Quaritch always have manuscripts in stock, and leading specialist dealers such as John Wilson, Julian Browning, Michael Silverman and Sophie Dupré offer internet access to their extensive archives of the famous (and almost famous), with prices starting below £100. As Davids says: “Manuscripts are the closest we can get to the great men and women who have moved us.”

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