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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austens with a pedigree

Owning first editions of Jane Austen’s novels – ideally, as I’ve noted before, of all Jane Austen’s novels – must be . . . pretty cool.

Owning an Austen first that was previously owned by yet another famous person must be . . . super-cool. Or so I would hypothesize, based on zero first-hand experience of same.

But if you have some spare change lying around – OK, a lot of spare change – tomorrow will bring the opportunity to test out this hypothesis. Because beginning at 10 am (US Eastern), Christie’s is holding a live auction of an exceptional collection of rare books, assembled by a one-time cable television executive, Theodore B. Baum, who died last month at the age of 86. Indeed, the collection is so exceptional that Christie’s has named the auction “The Exceptional Literature Collection of Theodore B. Baum.”

Baum’s collection is filled with goodies for the readers among us, including a first edition of Great Expectations, owned by Dickens’ publisher; a couple of Shakespeare folios; and a first edition of Jane Eyre, from the library of twentieth-century New York heiress Katherine de Berkeley Parsons. And that barely scratches the surface: There are beautiful and rare editions of Defoe and Darwin, Keats and Yeats, Wordsworth and Whitman, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker . . . one hundred seventy-three titles in all. And this doesn’t even count the two hundred and forty-four twentieth-century items, both literary classics and genre works, included in an in-progress online auction of the rest of Baum’s collection.

Needless to say, this bounty doesn’t come cheap: Christie’s is estimating that none of the books in tomorrow’s auction will sell for less than $500, while the priciest – a Shakespeare Second Folio – is expected to bring between $180,000 and $250,000.

And yes, Our Jane is represented in full, with three-volume first editions of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, plus the four-volume set that includes both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Several of the Austens have intriguing provenances: The S&S was owned by a nineteenth-century Scottish peer who served as president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the P&P bears the bookplates of a Royal Navy officer (shades of Captain Wentworth). But the jewel of the set is the MP, which was owned by the great twentieth-century American theater composer Jerome Kern. (Could “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” have been inspired by Edmund Bertram’s failed attachment to Mary Crawford? We can dream.)

The Kern MP, expected to fetch $60,000-$80,000, is likely the most expensive of the Austens; estimates for the rest range from a low of $20,000 to a high of $70,000. But if you want to own an Austen first with an exceptional pedigree, now’s your chance.


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