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Beethoven in the Auction Market: A Twenty-Year Review

From: Notes
Volume 63, Number 3, March 2007
pp. 533-564 | 10.1353/not.2007.0043

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In memory of Ira F. Brilliant (1922–2006)

In November 1827, Beethoven's estate containing music autographs, books, furniture, and other personal items sold at auction on behalf of the beneficiary, his nephew Karl. The estate inventory of 252 lots listed seventy sketches and "notebooks" and about 120 other music autographs, none appraised at more than ten florins. The following April, The Harmonicon printed a report on the results of the estate auction with comments on the "uncommon interest" on the part of buyers, some of whom paid "astonishing" prices. However, the lots that excited greatest demand might surprise today's auctioneers. For example, Beethoven's autograph score for the Fifth Symphony sold for only one florin more than its appraised value of five florins. His original score for the Septet, op. 20, however—a work so astoundingly popular during his lifetime that an exasperated Beethoven eventually proclaimed that "I wish it were burned" —sold for eighteen florins, or six times its appraisal value. Tobias Haslinger bought the notebooks containing Beethoven's counterpoint studies, appraised at ten florins, for seventy-four florins, by far the highest price paid for any other autograph. Thus began an active and sometimes erratic trade in Beethoven manuscripts and other treasures that, in spite of dwindling supplies, continues today.

The purpose of this article is to review auction sales of biographical and musical manuscripts, first and early editions, and other Beethoven-related documents and artifacts over a twenty year period (1985–2005). An introductory summary highlights changes in values, repeated sales of the same documents, and discoveries of manuscripts thought to be long missing. Although the major auction houses (Christie's, Sotheby's, and J. A. Stargardt) are the primary vendors of Beethoven rarities, several of the smaller venues are also represented. The appended index of auction sales supplements the list published as "A Ten-Year Review of the Beethoven Auction Market (1985–1995)" in The Beethoven Journal (vol. 11, no. 1 [Spring 1996]: 26-31). The intention is for libraries and dealers to use these lists to help them assess the rarity and value of their Beethoven collections. Because many manuscripts are in private hands and thus still eligible for future auction sales, these lists do not identify the current location of the materials. When possible, this information is recorded in the Beethoven Auction Database recently mounted on the Web site of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies ( http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/beethoven [accessed 22 November 2006]). This searchable database is to be updated biannually to keep track of recent sales and identify locations when known.

Supply and Demand

Throughout the nineteenth century, most Beethoven manuscripts were the property of private collectors who exchanged them through dealers rather than auction. By midcentury some of the major European libraries and archives began building Beethoven collections through donations and purchases. The Royal Library at Berlin took the first step in 1846 by acquiring the collection of Beethoven's notorious secretary, Anton Schindler, who claimed many Beethoven documents prior to the estate sale, including the conversation books. Many of the sketchbooks purchased by Domenico Artaria and other dealers who were present at the estate auction eventually ended up in the Berlin library, mostly through acquisition from private collectors such as Ludwig Landsberg (acquired 1861), Friedrich August Grasnick (1879), and Ernst von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1908). A large collection of letters accumulated by H. C. Bodmer are now in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna became a repository of several major music autographs, some gifts of prominent members such as Johannes Brahms. Other manuscripts are scattered throughout the western world, with significant collections in the national libraries of Great Britain and France, and the Library of Congress in the United States.

Still, a large number of Beethoven treasures remain in private hands. The number is difficult to estimate. According to Sieghard Brandenburg, editor of Beethoven Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe, at least one hundred autograph letters are owned by private collectors. Although Brandenburg documents nearly 1,800 letters from Beethoven, in some cases he could not trace the original sources and was forced to rely on early publications or facsimiles to transcribe the texts...



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