- Literary Property Changing Hands: The Peyraud Auction (New York City, 6 May 2009)
When literary property changes hands, we take notice. We take special notice if the property is of significant quantity and speaks to our interests. The dispersal in a public auction of a large collection of books, manuscripts, and images creates a flutter of activity: scholars plan research visits; library cataloguers and online bibliographers create new records; conservators tend to the more fragile items; curators plan new exhibitions; collectors reassess the market value of their own copies; and teachers expand course syllabi to include student viewing of these rarities firsthand. With the transference of new properties, a broad chain reaction is set off. Everyone benefits from 'the butterfly effect.'
On 6 May 2009 in New York City, the largest collection in private hands of books, manuscripts, and images associated with the Georgian period (1760–1820) was sold at auction in 483 lots. The sale of the Paula Peyraud Collection was the principal literary event of New York City's spring season. About 85 percent of the collection was sold by lot (unsold properties may be reoffered by the London office of the auction house). The auction's total sales, including premium, of $1,598,114 surpassed the presale estimate of $1 million. Of the 104 registered buyers, most of these were collectors and buying agents for U.S. libraries. The dominant figures in the collection were literary ladies of the Georgian period: Frances Burney, Hester Thrale Piozzi, the Bluestockings, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, and the Brontes. The few literary men featured in the sale catalogue were Samuel Johnson (about thirty items), Alexander Pope, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Horace Walpole, Lord Byron, and others. By the time of Peyraud's sad death in 2008, the complete collection ran to approximately half a million printed books and over 100 paintings. [End Page 151] The sale lots for the auction were only selections. Not included were over 100 boxes of modern cookery books, a few miles of reference books, and a small collection of French porcelain folk art.
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The entity organizing this one-day event was the New York office of Bloomsbury Auctions. While the Peyraud auction was not comparable in scale to such recent sales, at Christie's, for example, as the Doheny Collection (1988), the Hyde Eccles Collection (2004), or the Vander Poel Collection (2004), and while no records were set at Bloomsbury on 6 May, the sale was a dramatic validation of continuing interest and commercial investment in cultural property of the Georgian period, especially its women writers. The sale represented some thirty years of dedicated collecting by an intriguing "dark lady" in the antiquarian market: Paula Fentress Peyraud (1947–2008). Only the Hyde Eccles Collection at Harvard (John F. Fleming, sometime buying agent) exceeds the Peyraud trove in volume and importance. The second-largest collection of Georgian material in private hands is that formed by Gerald M. Goldberg, in Chappaqua, NY. Bidders at the Peyraud sale moved briskly through the sale catalogue in two bidding sessions guided by the event's principal auctioneer, Stephen C. Massey. A busy phone bank of some fifteen lines managed offsite bids. These buyers effectively made decisions on the destiny of an important mass of property.
In addition to a few bidding wars on the saleroom floor, there were other surprises: the Zoffany full-length portrait of Hester Thrale Piozzi (Lot 379; Figure 2) was the second highest...