The poetic riches of the Gerald N. Wachs collection
By WILLIAM BAKER
More than a decade ago, I bid for a Tom Stoppard item online. The price went higher and higher – outrageously so for a reprint of a play not all that scarce or expensive in its first edition. In the end, I was outbid. Afterwards, I was surprised to receive an email from a Dr Gerald N. Wachs in New York City asking why I was prepared to pay so much. I explained that I was a Stoppard collector and was compiling his bibliographical history. Immediately, Wachs responded that I was most welcome to come to see his own Stoppard collection. So I landed up in his flat overlooking the Met, where I subsequently spent many happy weeks working on Stoppard, and sleeping amid signed copies of the great English romantic poets, among other treasures.
Jerry was an avid collector, but the nineteenth-century first editions of English poetry were the cream of his collection. This element he built up with his friend, the eminent bookseller and bibliographer Steve Weissman, then of Ximenes Rare Books. They began in March 1970, and continued until Jerry’s death in 2013 at the age of seventy-six. They collected only the finest copies – presentation copies to other writers, friends, family members; and 155 of them will be for sale at the first session of Sotheby’s “Fine Books & Manuscripts” auction in New York tomorrow.
There is, as I had expected, much to choose from. The first item is a presentation copy inscribed on its front wrapper by Matthew Arnold to a fellow pupil at Rugby, Edward Armitage. Only one other inscribed copy of Arnold’s extremely rare first published work, Alaric at Rome (1840), is known to exist. The estimates range from US $45,000 to $65,000. Also for sale is Arnold’s Merope: A Tragedy (1858) in the original green cloth stamped in blind and inscribed by Arnold on its half-title to his father-in-law ($2,000–$3,000).
Other items include the Brontës’ Poems (1846), the rare first issue of their first book in the original cloth ($15,000–$25,000) and its second issue with the errata slip ($2,000–$3000). There is the first edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s first book, The Battle of Marathon (1820). The copy has twenty-four punctuation corrections additional to those known to exist; only fifteen copies are recorded, all in private hands ($80,000–$120,000).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge items include the first edition of his first book, The Fall of Robespierre (1794) with the proposal leaf present ($8,000–$12,000). Perhaps the most interesting item from a scholarly point of view is that of Zapolya (1817). This is an extraordinary presentation copy, inscribed by Coleridge on its half-title in the form of a lengthy letter to John Gibson Lockhart (1794–1854). The estimate appears to be on the low side at $12,000–$18,000.
Keats is represented by his first volume of poetry ($15,000–$25,000); a first edition first issue of Endymion ($4,000–$6,000); Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems (1820; $6,000–$8,000); and the sixty-three issues of The Chambers: A London weekly journal that contain the poet’s “The Sea” and his reviews of three dramas, the sole prose he apparently published during his lifetime ($10,000–$15,000). The Keats collector will also not wish to miss the five volumes of Annals of the Arts (1817–20), containing the initial anonymous publication of Keats's odes “To a Nightingale" and “Grecian Urn” and his two Elgin Marbles sonnets ($8,000–$12,000).
The Shelleys include a first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Valperga (1823; $6,000–$9,000), followed by sixteen Percy Bysshe Shelleys. The Tennysons are extensive, too, one highlight being The lover’s tale (1833; $8,000–12,000), described in the Sotheby’s catalogue as “one of the great rarities of nineteenth century English literature”. The other highlight is the first separate edition of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1855; $25,000–$35,000) – the copy that apparently went to an officer in charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava.
Unsurprisingly, there is a run of Wordworths and Wordsworthiana. The highlights include the first edition of his first book, An Evening Walk ($50,000–$70,000) with its errata leaf; his second book Descriptive Sketches in Verse ($40,000–$60,000) with the A2 errata leaf present; and a copy of an unrecorded Wordsworth broadside – "an address to the freeholders of the county of Westmorland" – dated January 30, 1818: the estimate is between $25,000 and $35,000.The final item in this sale of infinite riches from the Wachs collection is a first edition in the original cloth of Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin (1889; $2,000–$3,000).
It baffles the mind to think that I shared a room with these greats. Did I not also turn the pages of Aubrey De Vere’s The Search after Proserpine (1843), fascinated by Walter Savage Landor’s extensive annotations? (This volume is not mentioned in the sale.) I spent time, too, with Landor’s Heroic Idylls, a proof copy extensively annotated by Landor and dedicated to Edward Twisleton, to whom he had been introduced by Robert Browning. Landor inscribes the book, “All my old friends are dead, let their place continue to be supplied by Edward Twisleton”. The copy has more than fifty new lines of verse in Landor’s hand, and spelling and punctuation alterations on almost every page. It is estimated at $3,000–$4,000; like its poet, one can only dream on.