Walt Whitman manuscript commands ‘Christie’s price’ at Kansas auction

LONE JACK, Mo. – In the world of antiquarian books and ephemera, it’s a topic of conversation but not necessarily a shocker when a rare manuscript elicits a hefty five-figure sum at a New York or London saleroom. It becomes a major headline, however, when the sale takes place at a family-run auction house in suburban Kansas City. That was the case on Feb. 26, 2011 when auctioneer Dirk Soulis brought the hammer down at $55,000 on a signed, annotated manuscript of an 1885 Walt Whitman poem.

"I could have bought that cheaper at Christie’s!" the buyer in the room exclaimed after winning a prolonged bidding battle against the phones. Regardless, the buyer regained considerable ground at the check-out, since Soulis – whose Midwestern sensibility rejects the concept of customer gouging – charges only 5 percent as a buyer’s premium. That brought the total to $57,750.

The Whitman manuscript – a poem initially titled "Ah, not that Granite Dead and Cold" and later published as Washington’s Monument – was part of a distinguished, "old time" collection amassed by the late Eugene DeGruson (1932-1997).

"Gene DeGruson was considered a Kansas treasure," said auctioneer Soulis. "He was an English professor at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University and was on the board of the Kansas State Historical Society. Although he had come from humble origins – his father and grandfather were coal miners – he became a prize-winning poet and widely respected scholar on Kansas history. He also built a premier collection of 19th-century literature, letters and autographs that included Shelley, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. Kansas was the last place anyone would have expected to find this long-hidden collection."

Soulis said that until a few days prior to the auction, rare book enthusiasts seemed to be keeping their cards close to their vests. "Then all at once they started calling to set up phone lines for the Whitman manuscript. It was one caller’s sense that the lot was going to fly under the radar, but by auction day, we had 17 bidders on the phones and absentee bids totaling $10,000. At that point I knew we were going to see some action – but I don’t think anyone suspected it would even get within $20,000 of its eventual selling price," Soulis said."ìI certainly didn’t."

Fewer than 50 people were present in the gallery, Soulis said. He observed that phone and Internet bidding are "the mode of the day, especially when it’s a narrow specialty like manuscripts and autographs."

Two of DeGruson’s brothers, Jim and Walter DeGruson, serve as co-executors of the late professor’s estate. Jim, his wife Rita, and their son Eric were among those in the gallery who watched as bidding for the Whitman manuscript intensified, then boiled down to two competitors – one in the room and one on the phone.

"It didn’t seem that the two final bidders had any particular limits in mind," Soulis said. "I would be just about to bring down the gavel when one of them would jump back in and the bidding would go up by a few thousand more. The manuscript was such a prize, they were both reluctant to concede."

While the Whitman manuscript was the clear superstar of the $200,000+ sale, there were many other entries among the 350 lots that easily met or surpassed expectations. An Oscar Wilde hand-written manuscript of the poem Amos Intellectualis, although neither dated nor formally signed by Wilde, sold to a phone bidder for $17,325 (estimate $500-$1,000). Another phone purchase was the 1497 Latin edition of Sebastian Brandt’s Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools), translated by Jacob Locher and illustrated with 118 woodcuts attributed to Durer. It finished at the midpoint of its estimate range at $12,600.

An archive of personal ephemera consisting of telegrams, photos, research materials and 78 letters signed by Amy Lowell also included a 5-page typed manuscript in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet responded to a literary magazine’s negative review of a friend’s book. Estimated at $500-$1,000, the archive sold to a phone bidder for $13,650.

Approximately $75,000 in bids came from remote sources, and 37 percent of the auction’s contents sold to online bidders, including a 1755 first edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. The 2-volume set, which took Johnson eight years to complete and was later described by the author as ìa most enduring and endearing work," realized $7,875 (estimate $1,000-$1,500).

On March 27, 2011, Dirk Soulis Auctions will conduct an estate auction containing hundreds of antique and vintage golf clubs, books, bags, trophies and other golf-related collectibles. Subsequent events include an Art Pottery, Glass and Lamp auction on April 2 and an American Art Pottery auction on April 16.

For additional information, call Dirk Soulis Auctions at 816-697-3830 or toll free 800-252-1501, or by e-mail.

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