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Auction Books $1.7 Million for Archdiocese

February 02, 1988|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

CAMARILLO — At an average rate of a sale every 45 seconds, one of the most extensive private book collections ever assembled in California went on auction Monday at St. John's Seminary here.

To smatterings of polite applause after particularly vigorous bidding duels, collectors and dealers from around the nation acquired such coveted fixtures of the Estelle Doheny collection as an unpublished Mark Twain manuscript and a letter from California pioneer John Sutter describing the discovery of gold on his property.

The collection, donated to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Doheny, is being sold at the direction of Archbishop Roger Mahony to finance the recruitment and education of priests at the archdiocese's three seminaries.

A total of 439 lots changed hands Monday, and 387 others, including an eight-page fragment of the Gutenberg Bible, are scheduled to be sold today. A complete Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with movable type, was the centerpiece of the Doheny collection and in October fetched $5.39 million--the greatest sum ever paid for a single book--at the first of seven Doheny auctions.

This week's auction is the third, and the only one to be conducted outside London or New York. The first two sales netted $22 million, and the current series is expected to bring in more than $3 million, according to Hillary A. Holland, a vice president of Christie's, the renowned auction house conducting the sale.

'Wonderful Material'

About 350 bidders gathered in an auditorium at St. John's, where hillside orange groves surround serene dormitories and the ornate Doheny Memorial Library. Silently, they held aloft numbered paddles in response to the ever escalating bids reeled off by Christie's book director, Stephen C. Massey. Buyers on Monday parted with $1,699,390.

"There's wonderful, wonderful material here," said Doris Harris, a Los Angeles autograph and manuscript dealer who paid $85,000 for the Twain piece on behalf of a client she declined to identify.

"It's one of the finest bits of Clemens material I've ever read," she said. "It's an important work, and it's going into an important collection."

In "A Family Sketch," Twain, whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens, mourns the death of his daughter Susy at age 18 and rambles through less painful memories of his own youth. In vintage Twain style, he describes the wet nurse of his sister Clara: "She devoured anything and everything she could get her hands on, shoveling into her person fiendish combinations of fresh pork, lemon pie, boiled cabbage, ice cream, green apples, pickled tripe, raw turnips, and washing it down with freshets of coffee, tea, brandy, whiskey, turpentine, kerosene . . . and then she would go upstairs, loaded as described, and perfectly delight the baby with a banquet which ought to have killed it at 30 yards. . . ."

The widow of Los Angeles oilman Edward Laurence Doheny, Estelle Doheny gave her collection, which included much Twain memorabilia, to the seminary in 1940. She died in 1958.

"It's sad to see the library broken up," said Santa Barbara collector David Karpeles,"but, then again, that's the reason we're here. We're very concerned that the California documents stay in California." A real estate investor, Karpeles also operates the Karpeles Manuscript Library, a collection of "several hundred thousand documents," including a papal declaration of the Crusades, the Constitution of the Confederacy and a cover letter that accompanied the Declaration of Independence. On Monday, he paid $8,000 for a 1906 proclamation signed by Theodore Roosevelt offering aid to earthquake-stricken San Francisco.

For another $22,000, he took home the Sutter letter, which explains in none too plaintive tones that "my flour mill would have been finished by this time had not every one of the workers gone after gold." Karpeles and others walked away with fascinating tidbits of what scholars have come to call Californiana, but one bidder entered the ranks of Californiana himself.

With two purchases for a total of $42,000, Henry Clifford, a Pasadena investment counselor who is one of the acknowledged giants of book collecting in the West, became only the second collector to acquire all the volumes of the "Zamorano 80"--the 80 first editions viewed by scholars as the rarest and most significant volumes in California history.

The first Zamorano 80 collection--named in honor of California's first printer, Augustin Zamorano--is at Yale University. Clifford's, now completed with an 1831 tract calling for establishment of more missions and a 1770 account of Portola's explorations, will remain at home.

"This is heaven," said Dorothy Sloan, the Austin, Tex., rare-book dealer who represented Clifford in the bidding. "We're as happy as can be."

The book auction will continue today. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Doheny art collection will be on the block, featuring 180 Currier & Ives prints, several 16th-Century tapestries, 19th-Century French paintings, antique furnishings, crystal paperweights, sculpture, cameos and parasols.

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