Company Auctions Off Letters From Freud, Van Gogh

Audie Cornish talks to Joe Maddalena, who runs Profiles in History. The company is auctioning off a huge collection of historic letters and documents on Dec. 18. Among them are letters by George Washington, John Lennon, Vincent Van Gogh, Lou Gehrig, Louis Pasteur, Sigmund Freud, and Napoleon.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the age of text messages, Twitter and Gchat, it's easy to consider the art of letter writing a lost one. But if you've got money to spare, why not lose yourself in the words of someone famous - like artist Vincent Van Gogh?

JOSEPH MADDALENA: (Reading) I myself believe that the annoyances one experiences in the ordinary routine of life do as much good as bad. The thing that makes on fall ill, overcome by discouragement today, that same thing gives us the energy, once the illness is over, to get up and walk to discover the next day.

CORNISH: That's a reading of a letter by Van Gogh offering words of encouragement to an ailing friend. It's one of more than 300 letters written by luminaries from across history, politics and culture that will be auctioned off later this month. Joseph Maddalena is running that auction. He represents an anonymous American collector who is selling the letters, and he told us some of the stories behind his favorites.

MADDALENA: Van Gogh was a patron of this cafe in France and he would go in and spend his afternoons and became good friends with the owners. And, in fact, he painted a very famous painting of Madame Ginoux and a very famous painting of the cafe. Well, Ginoux suffered from mental illness, much like Van Gogh, and he wrote this letter to her basically saying we're not made of wood. We're going to die someday. And he's encouraging her in her plate of despair to persevere. And this is from a man who had a tragic life, who basically was obscure. He had one art review in his lifetime, had never sold a painting, and just died and, you know, and probably in his mind no one would ever know his name and became Vincent Van Gogh.

CORNISH: Another fascinating aspect of this collection is there are lots of letters that give you a window into the everyday lives of these figures. President Thomas Jefferson - many letters from him, but one of them, he's just ordering new glasses because he wants the same bifocals as Ben Franklin.

JOE MADDALENA: And that's when - think about what you just said. Here he's writing to an optometrist saying, yeah, Ben Franklin has these eyeglasses I like. I want a pair, too. I mean, think about that.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Now, what is it - you helped this collector find these letters over the past 30 years, correct? And after we spoke, what are the kinds of things this anonymous, we should say, collector was looking for?

MADDALENA: When I met this guy 30 years ago, he had a real definitive goal to build his library. He wanted great thinkers, but he wanted them in the context of their everyday life. You really get the humanistic nature of what these people did. Einstein struggling with math. Van Gogh struggling with mental illness. George Washington advising us that peace is this ardent desire for our nation that we should never do anything that puts us in a situation that war, that we always should strive for peace. And the collector built this amazing collection over 3,000 letters that really are indicative of those feelings.

CORNISH: How do you set a value on something like a letter?

MADDALENA: You know, it's a pretty sophisticated collecting hobby. There are, you know, many - Malcolm Forbes was one of the great collectors when he was alive and there are auction sales that take place all the time of Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln. So you can kind of gauge relative values and then you put a premium on some because of the content. It's all driven by content. The more important the content relative to the person, the more valuable it is.

CORNISH: And just to give people an idea of the scale here, there's a letter from Billie Holiday to her husband and she was in jail and she's writing to him and he's also in jail and it says, I think, 6 to $8,000 for that one.

MADDALENA: Actually, there's - and that's affordable. I mean, there are a lot of things in the catalog, Buffalo Bill and, you know, a lot of the things that are in the 3, 4, 5, $10,000 range. Not everything is, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

CORNISH: And, of course, the John Lennon letter to Eric Clapton.

MADDALENA: That's the best.

CORNISH: That you've got that 20 to 30,000.

MADDALENA: It should be worth $100,000. You have John Lennon basically saying, wasn't that much fun being a Beatle. You know, hey, Eric, you know come with us. We respect your music. Yoko and I are gonna start this band. We're gonna form this super group. We're gonna travel the world with our families and have fun for a change. It's unbelievable.

CORNISH: That's Joseph Maddalena. He's with Profiles In History, the group behind the auction of hundreds of letters by historic figures in New York later this month. Joseph, thank you so much for talking with us.

MADDALENA: Thank you very much.

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