A Letter from America V: The Malcolm Forbes Sales (June)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

On March 27, Christie’s New York held the first of what promises to be a series of sales of American manuscripts collected by the late Malcolm Forbes, Sr., flamboyant auction buyer, publisher, and rider of motorcycles with Liz Taylor. The manuscripts were put on the block by Forbes’ sons, who are rumored to be feeling a little hard-up these days. The flagship magazine, the financial journal FORBES, once viewed as a must-read by Wall Street, is now considered a joke in investment circles, and post 9/11 suffered a major decline in advertising. While few seem to think the Forbes brothers are headed to the poorhouse ("Ah, they’re just a bunch of little old ladies, thinking they’re going broke," was the comment of one powerbroker/ book collector of my acquaintance) the sale should at least provide them with a little walking around money. The first session netted a cool $20 million, and now that the dot.com bubble has burst that is real bucks again. If this keeps up- the next installment is in October- the Forbes sales could easily set the new record for the largest single-owner sale in books and manuscripts. The senior Forbes was a collector of the old school, buying stuff with unabashed gusto for the fun of it. He liked being rich, liked spending money, and liked competing at auction. In an era when major collectors often fret over the investment value of their purchases and cloak their identities through phone bidding, he was usually present and bidding merrily at the big sales. Always affable, he would chat with anyone who approached him, and was naturally not blind to the promotional aspects of being a famous buyer. Forbes often paid prices which were said to be crazy (needless to say, the houses loved him), but the investment-oriented can sharpen their pencils and look at what he paid vs. prices realized in 2002; in the fullness of time his only instance of record-setting which did not work out was the Mason-Dixon map (lot 4) which he paid a staggering $396,000 for at the Chew sale in 1982 (twice the price realized for the Chew Declaration of Independence, the lot before it in that sale) and which went for $556,000 this time around (a bargain, to the astute Donald Heald). All the rest went forth and multiplied. The late owner would have been most comfortable, then, in the atmosphere of the sale room on March 27, which had the suppressed nervous tension associated with very low barometric pressure- the kind of electricity auctioneers dream of, and find hard to generate in these cynical times. To this observer (and I ended up being just that, because my book of quite strong bids was completely overwhelmed, and I came away virtually empty-handed) the most telling aspect of the result was not the extraordinary height of the bidding, which might have been anticipated given the quality of the material, but the breadth, in terms of latent support in the market place. This sale was not a matter of two titans struggling far above the rest of the crowd; lot after lot had three or even four bidders trying to get in far along in the bidding. This is hard to gauge, of course, because someone with a strong bid might simply watch as the numbers go past them, but as an example the Robert E. Lee letter to Grant requesting a suspension of hostilities (lot 104) had at least four bidders in above $400,000 (in the end $650,000 to Kaller). Watching body language in the room, and the attempts of those manning the phones to get in, further reinforced this. Famous name sales with first rate material often defy a soft market and do well. In this instance, however, the widespread bidding, and the amount of money which went unspent in the end, suggest how strong this market really is. Three years ago buyers were turning down material because they felt they could not afford to miss out on the stock market. No one feels that today, and while some fortunes have been wrecked in the last few years, many people have emerged from the ‘90’s with more money than they ever expected. They don’t see any compelling investments, and collecting in many fields has thus gotten a surprising shot in the arm. While the Kallers (presumably bidding primarily for the Gilder-Lehrman Collection) continued to be the main pole in the tent for the American historical manuscripts market, they were often outrun; one phone took over four million dollars worth of stuff, including the star lot, the Lincoln speech of April 11, 1865 (lot 105); another phone over 2.5 million, and a broad range of buyers managed to spend more than $250,000 each. The blow-by-blow of this sale was reported in ABR last month, but for the investment-minded, here are some comparative numbers showing what Forbes paid and the price realized (all expressed in net prices). A George Washington survey (lot 10), $3500 at the first Sang sale in 1978 (where Forbes was a major player), $58,750 now. A leaf from Washington ’s undelivered Inaugural address (lot 15; come on, a fragment of a speech not given!), $4000 in 1979, $358,000 now. A decent but not great Jefferson letter (lot 28), $1800 in 1977, $94,000 now. Forbes bought that letter at Hamilton Galleries; Christie’s took the interesting tack of noting auction provenance if the manuscript had been sold by themselves or Sotheby’s, but ignored it if bought at a lesser house- old ways die hard. A nice Andrew Jackson letter (lot 56), $9000 in 1983 and $37,600 now; it wasn’t all home runs. Likewise a rare William Henry Harrison signature in office (lot 63), $28,000 in 1982 and $127,000 now. But the Lincoln letter on campaign strategy (lot 84) was $16,000 in 1983 and $501,000 now. The bottom line (just like the stock market): if one bought the right stuff it all worked out. The elder Forbes wouldn’t have cared; the sons are taking it to the bank.

- William Reese