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One for the Books

Edgar Allan Poe still makes history — 160 years after his death.

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He's considered the inventor of detective fiction, an artist who delighted in the hideous, the grisly and gruesome and has been dead himself for 160 years. And yet 2009, the bicentennial of his birth, was a very good year for Edgar Allan Poe. In December his work came up at auction at Christie's in New York and set dazzling records.

At 18 Poe had attended the University of Virginia. The horror and mystery writer then left his foster family, the Allans, in Richmond for Boston, the city of his and his mother's birth. Very soon after, his first book, the 40-page “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” was anonymously published. The 403-line poem “Tamerlane,” featuring a powerful military ruler and his unrequited love, is its highlight. Forty or 50 copies were printed of that rare first edition; it's said that only 12 still exist. Poe's name isn't even on the cover. He was merely designated “a Bostonian.”

Almost unnoticed when published, it's one of the world's most sought-after rare books. Christie's catalog described the book up for bidding as “an entirely unsophisticated copy,” with only two remaining in the hands of private collectors.  Estimated between $500,000 and $700,000, the rare first edition set a world record for a 19th-century book of poetry, purchased for $662,500 by an anonymous collector. This nearly tripled the record the book set several decades ago when it first brought $250,000 at auction.

The top lot of the entire William E. Self library, an English and American literature collection, also was a Poe work. Two determined collectors had their eyes on it, driving the bidding to dizzying heights. Self is a former television executive who's collected books for more than 40 years and is considered to have one of the most important collections of English-speaking authors. He offered his 1849 manuscript of eight  verses from “For Annie,” written in Poe's hand. Estimated to sell for $50,000 to $70,000, it went for $830,500 — an auction record for a 19th-century hand-written literary manuscript.
 
“It just ran away,” says Francis Wahlgren, the international head of books and manuscripts for Christie's. “There were two collectors who were really desperate to get the hand-written verses. They really slugged it out.”

Poe gave a gift of two early poems to his friend Lambert A. Wilmer in 1828. In manuscript form, they'd been estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $80,000. Instead, these hand-written verses brought $362,500, almost quadrupling the high end of the estimate. A copy of “The Raven and Other Poems” also was offered. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, the beloved work was sold for $182,000.

Wahlgren attributes the phenomenal increase in Poe to foreign interest and the buying power of the euro in the United States. The French especially admire Poe. 

Mid-19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire was fascinated with the American writer's macabre approach to literature and translated his poetry; in contrast to his home country, Europeans greeted the writer's literature with near reverence from the very beginning. 

At least one Poe collector says that the auction prices seen at Christie's are “devastating.” The final totals are certainly ironic. Poe, called during his life a mad genius and tormented artist, could never have guessed that his poetry would become so sought-after. And expensive. S

Ginger Levit is a Richmond-based private art dealer who also writes about paintings, antiques and travel for Fine Art Connoisseur, Antique Week and other publications. 

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