Important manuscripts, letters and other items belonging to poet and playwright Oscar Wilde go up for auction this month, the 150th anniversary of the ever-controversial Irish-born writer’s birthday.
The 104-item collection, exhibited Thursday at Sotheby’s Manhattan location, includes some of the most desirable items from the witty Wilde’s holdings. Most symbolic of Wilde’s journey from bon vivant to social pariah is the “Tite Street Catalogue,” a listing of his possessions for an April 1895 auction that followed his arrest for indecent acts.
It’s one of only four known copies of the catalog, which demonstrates Wilde’s once-hefty collection of worldly possessions: valuable paintings, Chippendale furniture, Persian rugs, his own works and books presented as gifts by such luminaries as Walt Whitman and Victor Hugo.
Wilde, whose gay lifestyle led to a two-year prison term in staid 19th-century England, died in Paris soon after his release.
The auction also features a vivid photograph of Wilde inscribed to his longtime friend, Robert Ross; a first edition of his celebrated play, “A Woman of No Importance,” signed to “my dear mother,” Lady Jane Francesca Wilde; and the handwritten manuscript, with copious cross-outs and corrections, of chapter 16 of his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
The Wilde items represent a major collection and a rare opportunity for fans of the writer, said Bruce Whiteman, head of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, which claims to have the largest Wilde collection in the world.
“We are certainly going after a few things in the sale,” Whiteman said.
According to Whiteman, the library waged a “civilized and understated war” in 1996 for the original manuscript of the “Dorian Gray” chapter but lost out to an unidentified businessman from England. The Clark library was prepared to pay $30,000; the businessman paid $70,000, Whiteman said.
What’s thought to be the same chapter is offered in the Sotheby’s auction, with officials estimating it could sell for $145,000. The auction is set for Oct. 29 in London, a little less than two weeks after Wilde’s birthday. The collection is expected to fetch more than $1 million, said Sotheby’s books and manuscripts expert Dr. Philip Errington.
Errington hand-carried 30 pieces to New York for display because of Wilde’s big following in the United States. The collection required its own passport because of its rarity and value, he said.
“There is a huge market for Oscar Wilde in New York City, from private clients to public institutions,” Errington said. “He was brilliant and known as an incredible wit.”
Errington recalled the infamous tale of Wilde’s arrival at U.S. Customs in New York. Asked if he had anything to declare, Wilde replied, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
Wilde wrote two acclaimed plays, “Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” that cemented his reputation as a writer. His other works include “Salome,” about the beheading of John the Baptist, and the English literature classic “Dorian Gray.”
“He is seen as the first modern writer,” Whiteman said. “He is a tremendously readable writer who holds the contemporary interest. He is an icon.”