NEW YORK — Books and manuscripts had a standout winter-spring season at Swann Galleries. “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,” said 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. Absentee and Internet live bidding was facilitated through LiveAuctioneers.
Highlighted sales included an inscribed circa-1870 carte-de-visite portrait of early photographer James Presley Ball at $125,000. Ball was one of the first Black photographers in America, learning his trade in Boston. He launched 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.
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, printed in London in 1623, sold for $185,000; a first edition of D’Avenant’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, printed in London in 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, published in London in 1634, brought $81,250.
Senior Specialist Devon Eastland commented: “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.”
Additional season highlights included a 1925 London first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the rare dust jacket, entirely unrestored, which rose to $30,000; a first American edition in the first state binding of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or the Whale, printed in New York in 1851, which realized $27,500; and first American editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in Boston between 1954-56, which together attained $9,375. Autographs of note included an autograph letter signed by George Washington as sitting president, which realized $30,000, and a small archive of items signed by Ernest Hemingway, which sold for $23,750.
The department celebrated its third year of offering a dedicated sale to the accomplishments of women on June 1. The auction brought to market material from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which included photographs and letters once belonging to the author, and achieved $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 catalog 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.
Click to view top auction results on LiveAuctioneers: https://www.liveauctioneers.com/pages/recent-auction-sales/