By Frank James
A worn and stained first-edition of Edgar Allan Poe's first book "Tamerlane and Other Poems" was sold at auction by Christie's for $662,500, a new record for a work of American literature.
The work is so rare that in some of the stories about the auction, a Christie's expert is quoted as referring to it as "the black tulip of U.S. literature." No more than 50 copies were printed in 1827; only 12 are thought to still exist. A copy of "Tamerlane" held the previous auction record for American literature, selling for $225,000 about 20 years ago.
Poe claimed to have written the work before he turned 14; it was published when he was 18 and the author was identified only as "A Bostonian."
An excerpt from Christie's website provides some background:
Tamerlane and Other Poems was virtually ignored and received no significant critical attention upon its publication. It was listed in the United States Review and Literary Gazette for August 1827 as a recent publication, and it was similarly noted in the North American Review for October 1827. It appeared in Samuel Kettell's, "Catalogue of American Poetry," in Specimens of American Poetry (Boston, 1829--see lot 156). In fact, when Poe published Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems in 1829, his claims of an earlier edition were considered untrue. No copy was known until 1876, when one was found in the library of the British Museum, where it had been sent as part of a miscellaneous collection of American books in 1860 purchased from Henry Stevens of Vermont. A second copy was not found until 1890, in Boston.
The present copy was first discovered in 1926 or 1927, in the New York area , and is one of only a few copies that have been discovered outside of New England. It is one of a group of five or so copies which surfaced as a result of the popular article by Vincent Starrett, "Have You a Tamerlane in Your Attic," published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925; and one of only seven surviving copies with both wrappers preserved...
Christie's also auctioned a Poe poem manuscript for $830,500. Poe evidently wrote the poem for a married woman he was trying to woo.
Because this was a stray poem and not a finished work that was bound and published as a book, it doesn't unseat the just sold "Tamerlane" as the record holder.
Telegraph.co.uk reports on the seller, William Self:
William Self, a former senior television executive who is selling the latest copy, described it as "kind of a beat-up copy".
Now 88, he said he was selling his rare book collection because he did not want to burden his children with looking after it.