On Auction

John Lennon, Van Gogh Letters Among Items in Documents Auction

John Lennon’s letter to Eric Clapton proposing a new band. Joe DiMaggio’s tender missive to Marilyn Monroe after a fight. A Charles Dickens manuscript. These are among documents on display on Madison Avenue ahead of a Dec. 18 auction in California.

12.04.12 9:45 AM ET

It’s unusual to find sketches of telephones by Thomas Edison in a real-estate office. Or a handwritten letter from John Lennon to Eric Clapton proposing that they form a band. Or notes by Beethoven in staggered lettering that appear to have been written with a fist.

But these and other documents are on display in the Madison Avenue gallery of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, in a week-long promotion leading up to an auction of 300 lots of personal documents belonging to historical figures from King George III to Joe DiMaggio.

Hosted by Profiles in History, the auction has the august title “The Property of a Distinguished American Private Collector Part I,” with Part II coming in May. Fraunces Tavern was the original site for this week’s display, to drum up interest among East Coast buyers for the Dec. 18 auction in California. But the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy nixed those plans, and Douglas Elliman opened its doors. In a statement, Douglas Elliman CEO Dottie Herman said, “In the spirit of true New York resiliency, we were able to provide our gallery space and offer people a unique chance to see this amazing collection before it goes to auction.”

Profiles in History took the consignment from this Distinguished American Private Collector earlier this year, and Martha Malinowski curated the collection for auction. Malinowski spent 26 years at Sotheby’s before joining Profiles in History, and she was shocked to see so much material she had handled before, like a manuscript by Charles Dickens written on the death of William Makepeace Thackeray.

Coming across material that you’ve sold before isn’t that unusual, she says, “but what is unusual is all of a sudden to realize that one person has all of this material that I had no idea where some of it had gone. Oftentimes there will be a series of different dealers buying for the same person, but as an expert in an auction house, you don’t know that.”

The collection is shocking not just for its sheer size (10 letters by George Washington in this auction alone), but also for its content. Almost all the material reveals substantial information, like a touching letter from Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe, written after a vicious fight in the early days of their relationship.

Malinowski stresses that the documents are priced so there is “something for everyone.” The most expensive pieces range from $200,000 to $500,000, and the cheapest, among them a letter from a Revolutionary War soldier, from $2,000 to $3,000. “Everyone can have a manuscript, they really can,” she says. “When you work with material like this, it makes history more real.”

There are fascinating nuances to find in every piece. Emily Dickinson’s sentences at a glance look like page-wide algebra equations. The size of Thomas Jefferson’s lettering grows tremendously from his letters to his speeches. Ernest Hemingway’s handwriting apparently was loopy, and Vincent Van Gogh’s is the clearest on display.

The Van Gogh letter is particularly touching, written in French to a Madame Ginoux, the subject of one of his portraits, after she had taken ill. Van Gogh writes, “Illnesses are there to make us remember again that we are not made of wood.” It’s dated seven months before his suicide.