Friday, February 13, 2009

SBU Libraries acquires second Washington letter

From Chris Filstrup, Dean & Director

Stony Brook arrived in force at Christie's auction of American documents yesterday. Kristen Nyitray, Richie Feinberg, and I represented the library. We were joined by Barbara Russell, Suffolk County Historian, and Elizabeth Kaplan, Director of Education at the Three Village Historical Association. Both Barbara and Liz are members of the Historical Documents Advisory Board which oversees the library's several activities related to the purchase of important historical documents. Also joining us was Steven Englebright, our Assemblyman and champion of local history.

The George Washington letter of interest to us was number 48 out of 51 lots. Most of the earlier lots went for amounts at the low end to middle of Christie's estimates. Exceptions were a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on vellum which sold for $580,000 and a plaster life caste of Lincoln which sold for $28,000. But the letters, mostly by Lincoln but also several by George Washington, were fetching low to middling amounts.

Bidding on our George Washington letter started at $14,000, and Kristen cooly kept the paddle in her lap. There was interest in the letter, and the price quickly went to $30,000, the top of the estimate, in $2000 increments. At $36,000, there was one bidder in house and one on the phone. There was a lull as the auctioneer waited for a bid at $38,000. Up went Kristen's paddle. "There's a new bidder in the house, first row," announced the auctioneer. From that bid to the end, it was no contest. The in-house bidder quickly dropped out, and it was Kristen versus the phone. At $48,000 the remote bidder must have realized Stony Brook's determination and went silent. The library is purchasing the letter with a combination of state funds provided by Assemblyman Steven Englebright and a donation by Henry Laufer.

The auction ended with the exciting sale of Lincoln's manuscript of his 1864 election victory speech. Bidding started at $1.5 million and, in $100,000 increments, rose to $3 million, the final, hammered price. With Christie's commission, the total price of $3.41 million set a record for an American document. Interestingly, the owner who put the Lincoln manuscript up for auction was a public library in Dryden, New York.

After the dust settled, we chatted with Christie's staff, several of whom came from or live on Long Island. They were happy to see the letter repatriated and to a public institution. We plan to do this again.


See the Newsday coverage of the auction for further information

See a previous Screen Porch post about the first Washington letter acquired by the library in May 2006


Jeanne Reilly said...

This is a monumentally ill-advised expenditure of money. Assemblyman Englebright is picking the pockets of state taxpayers in contributing to the purchase of not one, but two such letters. Meanwhile, data from the Association of Research Libraries for 2006-2007 (before "the crisis") ranks Stony Brook 102 out of 113 in its "Library Investment Index." Expenditures for Monographs for the same period place SBU 111 out of 112. SBU is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to critical library resources, and the situation has gotten worse since 2006-07. How central can these two Washington letters be to the University's research and educational missions? And, if Director Filstrup is to be believed, the library plans to acquire more! Some private collector who is dribbling out these letters must be laughing up his or her sleeve at having snagged such gullible buyers who think that these two letters, in lieu of critical investment in the library, will raise the reputation of the university.

Stony Brook University Libraries said...

All large academic libraries have special collections. These departments are "special" in that they acquire, preserve and provide access to types of materials that you do not find in the general, circulating stacks. These collections include rare books, manuscripts, archives and other non-published items. They are unique or rare in a national and international context, are often donated by individuals, and sometimes funded by public and private sources unrelated to the library's annual budget. The library's responsibility is to find donors with interests that coincide with the overall mission of the university. For example, at Stony Brook University, the Environmental Defense Fund provides for the salary of the archivist who is processing this collection. Leaders in the field of barcode and wireless technologies established an endowment to document the emergence and development of this important industry. Public monies supported the processing of the Senator Jacob K. Javits Collection.

The intent of Assemblyman Steven Englebright and Dr. Henry Laufer is to make these two letters, both formerly in private hands, public documents. These acquisitions in no way compete with the purchase of new books and journals; university funds were not used. The letters fit both the library's interest in developing our Long Island collection, in this case, pushing it back to the period of the American Revolution, and the university's interest in serving the community. The library has been careful to present the first letter in its proper context and has embarked on a number of initiatives. On campus, we hosted a public exhibit of the letter that drew several hundred attendees and organized a free conference on the topic of Long Island during the American Revolution. Working with a group of educators and local history professionals, the library created "traveling museums" and a curriculum for K-12 students to learn about the first letter and its historical context. The letter has been loaned to museums and educational organizations for exhibitions and the library intends to do the same for the second one. These exhibits give the public an opportunity to move from reading about the American Revolution to seeing first-hand, a significant document. This is an exciting and compelling experience for viewers and fosters positive relations with the library and the university.

The library welcomes comments regarding the acquisition of two letters authored by George Washington and their historical significance.

Chris Filstrup
Kristen Nyitray