The 138 penciled index cards comprising the manuscript of VN’s The Original of Laura failed to sell at Christie’s on Friday. With a pre-auction estimate of $400,000-600,000, the bidding moved quickly from the $200,000 opening to $280,000 and then stalled out. It took less than 23 seconds.
There was obviously much interest in this first open offering of the manuscript of a VN novel. Four broadcasting video cameras covered the event including one from the Russian TV network Zvezda. As soon as the the cards in lot number 95 failed to sell, three of them, including Zvezda, immediately began to break down their equipment and pack up.
The five inscribed and lepidopterized VN books that were also offered all sold at prices within or just under their estimates. A 1947 Henry Holt Bend Sinister, presented to Véra Nabokov’s sister, Sonia Slonim, got knocked down at $9500 (estimated $7000-10,000); a 1952 Rifma Stikhotvoreniia 1929-1951, presented to Véra Nabokov’s cousin, Anna Feigen, $10,000 (estimated $10,000-15,000); a 1952 Chekhov Dar, presented to Slonim, $8000 (estimated $10,000-15,000); a 1959 Putnam Invitation to a Beheading, presented to Feigen, $6500 (estimated $7000-10,000); and, a 1962 Putnam third printing of Pale Fire, presented to Slonim, $11,000 (estimated $8000-12,000). The five prices do not include the buyer’s premium of 25%. A large number of the bids on the presentation copies appeared to have been placed over the phone.
The auction went as I had expected. The presentation copies were estimated fairly and all sold. But the TOoL manuscript failed at its estimated price level for several reasons. For one, even though its recent publication has generated a tremendous amount of publicity and interest, that does not automatically translate into the passion that is necessary for someone to want to lay out big bucks for a piece of literature. Laura is not Lolita. At least not yet. It is a new book. It does not yet occupy real space in our literary imaginations. And the economy is still limping along. Maybe Cornell or some other such institution couldn’t find a benefactor willing to put up the cash. The top failed bid of $280,000 was, I think, a relatively accurate pricing of the manuscript.
Incidentally, a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a first edition, limited issue, one of 100 copies on Dutch handmade paper, and signed by Joyce, the most desirable version, estimated at $200,000-300,000, was also passed over. The biggest surprise, though, wasn’t a book, a manuscript, or even a piece of paper. It was the Olivetti portable typewriter on which Cormac McCarthy typed all of his work from 1958 to 2009. It was estimated at $15,000-20,000. It went for a whopping $210,000 plus $44,500 for the buyer’s premium. The tall, middle-aged man who bought it obviously had the passion and the bucks.