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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.

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To continue from my previous posting about Christie’s 4 December auction of VN’s index cards/manuscript of The Original of Laura.

On 5 May 2004, the well-known French auction house Tajan offered 104 lots from Dmitri Nabokov’s personal library of inscribed and lepidopterized presentation copies of his father’s works along with minor manuscript material and books about VN. Some of the books included annotations and corrections. The estimated prices were high, very high. Three had a top estimate of 100,000 €. The catalog was an expensive affair, issued in hardcover.

Though I have never found direct information on exactly what happened, I heard through the grapevine that the auction was a disaster and that nothing was sold. In fact, Tajan didn’t issue on paper or online a list of the auction results. What happened? I think that those 104 lots were just too many for the Nabokov market to absorb at one time and the estimated prices (and therefore the reserves) were simply too dear to potential buyers. Tajan must have spent a lot of money on preparing for the auction and got nothing for its efforts (depending on whatever deal it struck with Dmitri). And Dmitri had to take all of his books back home.

So here at Christie’s we have, quantitatively, a much more modest offering: one manuscript (very much in the public’s literary eye today) and five inscribed editions. The five books have estimates from a low of $7,000-10,000 to a high of $10,000-15,000. These are justifiable estimates for copies inscribed to close members of the family outside of the very inner circle of Véra and Dmitri.

And the 138 index cards? I ask myself, How often does a novel by a major literary figure come on the market? Extremely rarely. I mentally turn the cards over in my hands. This is terra incognita. This is at the very high end of the literary market. I see a shot into the stratosphere that will, like a cloud-seeding experiment, affect everything VN under it. So for now, unsatisfyingly, I decline to come to a conclusion. I’ll attend and see what happens and then reach for an understanding.

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Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

For sale: The original of The Original of Laura.

No, not the copy, the published version, that goes on sale on 17 November, but the actual index cards.

Dmitri Nabokov has consigned the 138 index cards to the New York branch of Christie’s for the “Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts” auction on Friday afternoon, 4 December. The pre-auction estimate (lot 95) is $400,000-600,000. The catalog for the auction (number 2227) features a cover photo of the first card of the novel (“The Original of Laura | Ch. One | Her husband, she answered, was a | writer too—at least, after a fashion. | …”) and an often seen photo of VN by Jerry Bauer. Pages 50-53 contain a description of the origins of the manuscript, a depiction of the fragmentary novel, and comments about its publication. The catalog text reads in large part as if it were written by Dmitri Nabokov. There are further photos of the index cards, many of which are deliberately blurred totally beyond legibility. I don’t know why.

Also in the auction (lots 96-100) are five of VN’s books inscribed and lepidopterized to Véra’s sister, Sonia Slonim, and Véra’s cousin, Anna Feigen. Their auction estimates range from $7,000-10,000 to $10,000-15,000.

It’s exciting stuff. I’m not aware of any VN novel manuscripts ever being offered at auction. Maybe a story or a poem, but not a novel. One reason is that the great bulk of VN manuscripts and other material was sold to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library in 1991 or given to the Library of Congress. But I honestly don’t expect the 138 TOoL cards to get knocked down near the estimated prices. Unless one of those bonus baby bankers is a VN collector.

I’ll have more to say.

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