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Rare Books, Items of Doheny Collection on Block at St. John's : Pricing of the Priceless

January 28, 1988|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

"To Livy L. Clemens with the mature and perfect love of the author"

The sentiment may be priceless, but the words will fetch perhaps $4,000 apiece next week at the third in a series of auctions of the Estelle Doheny collection of books and art at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo.

The volume of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" that Mark Twain inscribed as a Christmas gift to his wife in 1884 is the centerpiece of a sale described by rare-book experts as one of the most significant ever staged in California.

The auction series, which started in London last October with the $5.39-million sale of the Doheny collection's Gutenberg Bible, represents "the most important library sale in the U.S.," said J. A. Floyd, chairman of Christie's, the renowned auction house conducting the sale.

Mrs. Doheny, widow of Los Angeles oilman Edward Laurence Doheny, donated her collection to the seminary in 1940. It has been ordered sold by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to establish an endowment fund for the education of priests at St. John's and the two other seminaries in the archdiocese?

Archbishop Roger M. Mahony has called for a tripling of the number of seminarians in the three-county archdiocese, which in 1986 produced only six new priests. Mahony also wants the archdiocese to embark on an extensive program of recruiting minority candidates for the priesthood.

Interest from the proceeds of the auctions will finance the programs.

"Personally, one is always sad when anything like this is dispersed," said Floyd, "but the reasons in this case make such good sense. It is a very right and a very brave thing to do."

It also is very lucrative. Buyers--predominantly dealers and collectors--spent $22 million in the first two auctions. Representing one of Japan's largest booksellers, Eiichi Kobayashi set a world's record with his successful bid for the 15th-Century Gutenberg Bible, one of just 48 known copies of the first printed book. Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts made up the rest of the sale.

Next week's auction is expected to net just $3 million, according to a spokesman for Christie's.

Books, documents and letters, many dealing with the development of California and the West, will be up for sale Monday and Tuesday. The art sale, featuring 16th-Century tapestries, 19th-Century French paintings, antique furnishings, crystal paperweights and sculpture, will take place Wednesday and Thursday.

The inscribed "Huckleberry Finn," which is expected to sell for as much as $45,000, is, "arguably, the copy of this book," said Bart Auerbach, a book consultant for Christie's. "On a Bo Derek scale of 1 to 10, I'd have to say this is a 12."

Because 75,000 copies were printed, a first-edition "Huckleberry Finn" is not terribly rare, and can be purchased for less than $1,000, according to Louis Weinstein, owner of the Heritage Bookshop, one of Los Angeles' premier rare-book dealers.

"But family presentation copies never appear," Weinstein said. "They generally stay in collections associated with institutions. This is highly unusual. Twain inscribed a great number of books, but mostly to acquaintances or secondary literary people."

Weinstein, who spent 18 hours privately viewing the collection, said he plans to bid on "90% of the material."

More than 50 lots of Twain items will be placed on the block, including an unpublished handwritten "Family Sketch" touching on the event that tinged the final stage of his career with bitterness--the death of his daughter, Susy, at age 18.

Twain scholars have pored over the collection through the years, but it still requires further study, said Kenneth Sanderson, an editor with the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Note From Poe

"Almost any of it is of potentially great interest," said Sanderson, who helps to compile the definitive volumes of Twain's notes, letters, and books. "Anything you had access to, you would use. It's a superb collection." Yet a note of no scholarly value from Edgar Allan Poe probably will bring in as much as $4,500, said Auerbach, the Christie's consultant.

The note, to an Elwood Evans, says: "I have been absent from the city for the last few weeks & your note of the 15th is only this moment received. I have the pleasure of informing you that Mr. Dana's address is Chestnut Street, Boston."

Poe wrote comparatively little, and died young, broke, broken, and virtually unknown; his letters were not cherished.

"Poe is the rarest, hardest to get and most expensive of American authors," said Auerbach. "If you went to a rare-book dealer and said, 'I want to collect Poe,' he'd just look at you. You can't do that."

Other book and document offerings include:

The 1856 incorporation papers of the Republican Party of California. Signers vowed to "redeem the Federal Government, as well as that of California, from the Dominion of Slave Power." Estimated cost: $10,000 to $15,000.

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