Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Readied for Auction

A collection of personal documents belonging to Martin Luther King Jr. will be sold on June 30 by Sotheby's auction house. Potential buyers got to do a little window shopping Wednesday in New York.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Previews are underway at Sotheby's in New York for the sale of the Martin Luther King, Jr., collection. Here's what's up for sale.

More than 10,000 manuscripts, books, speeches, sermons, letters, even class note cards dating from Kings' youth to just before his assassination in 1968.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

David Redden, Vice Chairman of Sotheby's, talks with excitement about the first time he went through the Martin Luther King Jr. collection in the basement of the King family home in Atlanta.

Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): Behind the Christmas tree ornaments, behind the boxes of old toys, were some of the most important documents of American history.

ADLER: In Sotheby's showroom, there are walls of documents and showcases of books and memorabilia. Selby Kiefer, a Senior Vice President of Sotheby's, points to King's class notes from Morehouse College, including bluebook exams; one with an A prominently displayed. He then notes a transcript from Crozier Theological Seminary.

Mr. SELBY KIEFER (Senior Vice President, Sotheby's): Where his lowest grade was given in public speaking, in which he received a C.

ADLER: Did he get better, or simply have a teacher who didn't like his style?

There are thousands of pages in books with King's notes in the margins, and dozens of annotated sermons: every page on the wall at eye level.

Mr. KIEFER: If you want to take the time you can walk along and read it. You can see the changes. You can see the words that had been scratched out, the words that had been inserted, and really see the thinking and writing process.

ADLER: Kiefer's hope is that a major institution will buy the collection and make it accessible to the public.

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died five months ago, had been trying to sell the collection for several years. David Redden says it will be sold as one lot, and the family has put other restrictions on the sale.

Mr. REDDEN: During the lifetime of the King children, it must be kept together.

ADLER: So that means that we'll have nine days of this exhibit and then six minutes?

Ms. REDDEN: Yes, it could be five minutes, could be four minutes. Yes, it will be fast. The beauty of an auction process is that it's - there's no negotiation and its over in a few moments.

ADLER: Selling it in one lot means it's more likely that a major institution will buy the papers. Most institutions have been tightlipped about whether they plan to make a bid for the collection, but one exception has been a consortium from Atlanta, including former Mayor Andrew Young and representatives from the city's colleges and universities.

Earl Lewis, the Provost of Emery University, had just gotten off the plane, but he was already enthralled.

Mr. EARL LEWIS (Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, Emory University): It's actually very, very nice to be able to see King's own notations, his own thoughts as they evolved, and the ways in which his own words changed over time, and his ideas changed over time. We get a sense of King as a human being and not just as an icon.

ADLER: Lewis was joined by Phillip Howard, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Morehouse College, Dr. King's alma mater. They were standing near those bluebooks that King had written at college.

Mr. PHILLIP HOWARD (Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Morehouse College): We're partnering with Emory University in trying to find a way to bring the papers back to Atlanta, where they belong. And so it's really exciting in that sense. I hope to actually...

ADLER: Do you think there's a shot?

Mr. HOWARD: I think there's a shot. I'm a development guy, so I'm always optimistic.

ADLER: Sotheby's has appraised the Martin Luther King collection at between $15 and $30 million, but David Redden says that's conservative. After all, there are still surprises in the collection. Two weeks ago, Redden saw loose pages fall out of a magazine - a later revision of king's 1963 Letter from a Birmingham jail.

Mr. REDDEN: And you can see, it's got little things that say insert 1B, and you've got the paragraph written out here. And one of the great things about archives, it is filled with undiscovered treasures.

ADLER: On June 30th, we will all know who now owns those treasures.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at photographs of the King collection. Here, here's a blue book from school, speeches in his own hand, pictures of Kings' books. You can see them at npr.org.

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