The latter portion of 2015 included a bit more excitement than usual around the Folger, as we gathered for several days in early December to feast (on popcorn, primarily), drink (coffee and tea), and engage in that most merciless of blood sports: buying at auction.
This occasion for festivity was Sotheby’s December 2015 sale of the magnificent collection of printed books and manuscripts belonging to Robert S. Pirie, a long-time collector of early English books, prints, and manuscripts, among other rare items.
Pirie, who passed away in January of 2015, was a titan of the rare book collecting world, and at times a merry competitor with the Folger and our sister institutions. Having the opportunity to pursue even a small fraction of his collection was a privilege, and it is an honor for us to make a new home for the staggering 47 items we were able to obtain.
We first became aware of the sale in late July of this year, when we received a preliminary catalogue. Over the following months, our Collection Development team read (and read, and re-read) that massive document, and worked steadily to prepare for the sale. Here at the Folger, collection development is very much a team effort. We have four senior staff with purchasing power: our Librarian, Daniel DeSimone, our Associate Librarian, Georgianna Ziegler, our Curator of Manuscripts, Heather Wolfe, and our Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints, Caroline Duroselle-Melish. All purchases are managed, organized, and completed by our Head of Acquisitions, Melissa Cook, and our Acquisitions Assistant, Urszula Kolodziej. As the Curatorial Assistant, I support data needs, compile upcoming auctions into a weekly or monthly guide, do research, and generally smooth the flow of new rare materials and catalogs as needed between departments.
Like many other institutions, our buying usually takes place over the course of an entire fiscal year. Sales such as this, however, come along only once in a generation, so we made the decision to “Go Big or Go Home,” and commit the remainder of our year’s Acquisitions budget. We went into the sale firmly convinced of the truth that acquiring any single item would mean acquiring our most important item of the year, so to come home with 47 items was cause for extreme celebration. We attribute much of our success to our Collection Development team’s ability to work together, support one another’s needs, and to engage in patient, thoughtful discussion about what would be best for our collections. Buying at auction necessitates a delicate balance of our best guess at the market value of an item combined with its value to our institution, and that can be nearly an impossible decision to make. This team made those decisions very well, after spending hours researching, reading the catalogs, discussing, and going back to the beginning of this cycle multiple times, often late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.
Although the seven of us worked and discussed priorities and bidding strategies for months, staff outside of Collection Development had little to no knowledge of our plans. As the dates of the sale loomed near, Melissa suggested that we stream the auction live (an option available for many Sotheby’s sales—isn’t technology great?). This decision was based on both our high stakes in the event and the sheer magnitude of the sale. Not to mention the fact that those of us who had been working on the preparation were extremely excited, and wanted to share this experience with our colleagues.
Arriving at work on those three days (December 2nd through the 4th) felt like an extended institutional holiday. Staff from all over the Folger filtered in and out throughout the event, eating lunch, doing work on laptops, bringing welcome snacks, and stopping briefly on their way to or between appointments and meetings. Anticipation was high, and excitement built as we began to have success on some bids. We were thankful for our months of planning and high level of organization then, as it allowed us to communicate rapidly in real time to re-arrange bidding priorities depending on our success or loss from lot to lot.
In order to maintain integrity for our strategy, we instituted a social media blackout regarding any success (or lack thereof), and “locked” attendees in the room once we reached a lot on which we were bidding. Many attendees commented on the “sports-like” atmosphere, and we were all a little sorry to be without foam fingers and jerseys. As a group, we cheered our successes, developed strong biases for the styles of different auctioneers, and texted and emailed excitedly with our colleagues who were on site at Sotheby’s. Although I believe that the Folger already has a strong sense of community, sharing the experience of this sale with everyone here (whether part of Central Library, IT, Digital Media, Security, or another department) brought us closer together. For many outside of Central Library, I think the experience illuminated a hitherto mysterious part of why we’re here, what we’re working towards, and why we make the key collecting decisions that we do.
Ultimately, we acquired some real treasures without spending our entire budget. We are a privileged institution in many ways, not the least of which is the ability to be competitive when an opportunity like this comes along. But as always, it is the people, in our tireless and dedicated staff and wonderful community of supporters, who made this event possible and successful. We’re so pleased to be able to bring these treasures home to D.C., where they will be accessible for use and research. Unfortunately, several of us may have become incurably addicted to auctions as a result of all this: I overheard one staff member suggest that we rob a bank first, next time.1
Stay tuned over the next few days for a full overview of the exciting new acquisitions that will soon be arriving: Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints Caroline Duroselle-Melish will be writing on the printed books for Tuesday, January 12th, and Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe and I will be writing on the manuscripts we acquired for Thursday, January 14th.