The Greatest Book Sale

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The Kern marriage was a very solid one, and he adored his daughter, Betty, who had been born in 1918. But Eva Kern was shy and inclined to be nervous. In 1927 she suffered a breakdown. She needed her husband much more now, and something had to give. Kern slowly decided that it had to be his book collection.

He couldn’t bear to part with it all at once, but in November 1927, a month before Show Boat opened on Broadway, he authorized the sale of 347 books, mostly duplicates and lesser works. The sale also included first editions of Robinson Crusoe and Gray’s “Elegy.” The latter went for a very impressive $4,000, and the whole sale brought in more than $28,000.

Perhaps this first sale brought home to Kern, who considered himself, not altogether correctly, an excellent businessman, how much his entire collection might be worth. For as the twenties drew to a close, the rare-book market was becoming as feverish as Wall Street, and The New York Times reported that “for the last two years the whole book world has been informed that there were no more good books to be had.” Jerome Kern, of course, knew exactly where world-class rare books could be had. He owned no fewer than 1,488 of them. He also knew that selling them would please Eva immensely, greatly simplify his life, and provide him with “an escape from my slavery.”

Prices paid at the Kern sale have never been equaled, and if inflation is factored in, many remain unchallenged.

Kern agreed to allow the Anderson Gallery in New York City, headed by the country’s leading book dealer, Mitchell Kennerly, to handle the sale. He and Kennerly hoped that the books might fetch upward of a million dollars. But the latter thought that so large a collection had to be disposed of carefully, allowing the market time to digest it. So he arranged for the sale to be held in two parts of five sessions each. The first part was to begin on January 7, 1929, and stretch over four days. The second part was to be held two weeks later.

It turned out that Kennerly need not have worried about the market’s ability to digest, for what can be described only as a bibliographic feeding frenzy erupted at the very first session and continued unabated for the remaining nine. The copy of “The Battle of Marathon” that Kern had paid $1,650 for sold for $17,500. By January 9 the Times was reporting that an autographed copy of Robert Burns’s poems had sold for $23,000, which it believed was more than the poet had earned in his lifetime.

Two days later the Kern book sale was on the front page when the session held the night before brought in $615,337. To put it mildly, prices were wild. A single page of the manuscript of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary went for $11,000, six times what Kern had paid for it only a few years earlier. To be sure, it is the only autograph page that still exists, but one scholar pointed out that at that rate the entire manuscript would have sold for more than $4.5 billion. A copy of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers went for $28,000, as did the only known first printing of Tom Jones . The autograph manuscript of Shelley’s Queen Mab went for a staggering $68,000.

Altogether, the sale raised $1,729,462. The world of rare books would know nothing like such prices again for more than fifty years; the Great Depression did for first editions exactly what it did for stocks. When Lord Rothschild, eight years later, bought the copies of The Pickwick Papers and Tom Jones that Kern had sold for $56,000, he had to pay less than $17,000. Some of the prices at the Kern sale have never been equaled, and if inflation is factored in, many remain unchallenged.

Kern can only have been elated with the success of the sale. But the night after the last session, when he went home to Bronxville, he had to confront his now-empty bookshelves. The highly polished wormholed chestnut wood was as beautiful as ever, but the shelves were bare and forlorn. To console himself, Kern the next morning went to Temple Scott’s Neighborhood Book Shop at Seventy-third Street and Madison Avenue and bought a rare book.