A Look Back At Swann’s Book & Manuscripts Sales

Winter/Spring 2023 Brings a Record-Breaking Season for the Books & Manuscripts Department

Books and manuscripts had a standout winter/spring season at Swann. “As a company whose origins are as a book auction house, it is reaffirming to see this growth, over 25%, in our book department over the last year. Even more exciting is that the results reflect not only strength in our established departments but also great momentum in our latest specialized sale, Focus on Women,” noted President Nicholas D. Lowry.

The top auctions of the season included two record-breakers in their respective categories: Printed & Manuscript African Americana and Early Printed Books. Both sales recorded their highest totals in history at the house. African Americana earned $1,378,838 on March 30, and the timed online auction of Early Printed Books closed on May 4 at $1,326,560.

Printed & Manuscript African Americana

Highlighted sales included an inscribed carte-de-visite portrait of early photographer James Presley Ball, circa 1870, at $125,000—Ball was one of the first Black photographers in America, learning his trade in Boston, launching his own itinerant studio in 1845, settling in Cincinnati from 1849 through the early 1870s, and then running studios in a succession of several southern and western towns until his death in Hawaii in 1904. Also of note was a 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, which earned an auction record for any Green Book at $50,000.

Early Printed Books

Works by William Shakespeare drew strong interest from collectors in the May 4 auction. King Lear; Othello; and Anthony & Cleopatra, extracted from the first folio, London, 1623, sold for $185,000; a first edition of D’Avenant’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, London, 1676, earned $42,500; and a first edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen: Presented at the Blackfriers by the Kings Maiesties servants, with great applause, London, 1634, brought $81,250.

“Speculation on the strength of collecting markets for art and antiques is rampant, but Swann’s most recent Early Printed Books sales, teeming with English literary highlights and rarities mainly from the Elizabethan era, remained very strong. The interest of hardcore collectors of fine books from the handpress period is abundantly evident, especially when the offerings include important books in excellent condition and almost unobtainable editions of titles world-renowned to obscure.”

Devon Eastland, Senior Specialist

Fine Books & Manuscripts

Left: Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, first edition in the rare dust jacket, entirely unrestored, London, 1925. Sold March 2, 2023, for $30,000.

Additional season highlights included a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, London, 1925, in the rare dust jacket entirely unrestored ($30,000); a first American edition in the first state binding of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or the Whale, New York, 1851 ($27,500); and first American editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Boston, 1954-56 ($9,375). Autographs of note included an autograph letter signed by George Washington as sitting president ($30,000), and a small archive of items signed by Ernest Hemingway ($23,750).

Focus on Women

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Family Archive of Photographs and Letters. Sold June 1, 2023, for $60,000.

The department celebrated its third year of offering a dedicated sale to the accomplishments of women on June 1. The auction brought to market rare material from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which included photographs and letters once belonging to the author ($60,000). “Focus on Women continues to flourish and build momentum. The climate of the collecting market, which includes institutional buyers as well as dealers, is clearly ready for a catalogue that consists only of work created by women. Raising the value of the work of living artists, documenting the struggles of those who came before, and digging into under-reported women’s stories are the main goals of this well-received sale. We are excited to see the shape of things to come in 2024,” Eastland said of the offering.

“Building on these strengths, we are looking forward to the coming year, especially in light of our incoming director of Illustration Art, Skye Lacerte,” Lowry concluded of the season. Swann Auction Galleries is currently accepting consignments for the fall 2023 season. Visit swanngalleries.com for more information.