Monday, February 25, 2013

Mark Twain, Hapless Collector, For $75,000

by Stephen J. Gertz

Mark Twain's autograph manuscript of  Chapter XX of A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, has come to market. It is being offered for £50,000 ($75,825) by Peter Harrington Rare Books of London.

The chapter provides an amusing account of Twain at the mercy of his passion for collecting ceramics. As collectors we are slaves to an object or book that inflames our imagination and are weaklings against a good story which we hope the dealer is accurately telling as he stokes the fire in our brain. Twain was no exception.

He wryly confesses: "Among [my collection] was my Etruscan tear-jug. I have made a little sketch of it here [his drawing on page 647 of the manuscript is reproduced in a more refined form on page 185 of the book] that thing creeping up the side is not a bug, it is a hole. I bought this tear-jug of a dealer in antiquities for four hundred and fifty dollars. It is very rare. The man said the Etruscans used to keep tears or something in these things, and that it was very hard to get hold of a broken one, now."

Twain goes on to discuss another of his favorite pieces, a Henri II plate which he has also sketched. "This is very fine and rare; the shape is exceedingly beautiful and unusual. It has wonderful decorations on it…It cost more than the tear-jug, as the dealer said there was not another plate just like it in the world. He said there was much false Henri II ware around, but that the genuineness of this piece was unquestionable. He showed me its pedigree, or its history if you please….which traced that plate's movements all the way down to its birth…whereby I saw that it had gone steadily up from thirty-five cents to seven hundred dollars. He said that the whole ceramics world would be informed that it was now in my possession and would make a note of it, with the price paid."

He then discusses "my exquisite specimen of Old Blue China.  This is considered to be the finest example of Chinese art now in existence. I do not refer to that bastard Chinese art of modern times but that noble and pure and genuine art which flourished under the fostering and appreciative care of the Emperors of the Chung-a-Lung-Fung dynasty…The little sketch which I have made of this gem cannot and does not do it justice…But I've got the expression though."

It's the mien of a cat with mouse on its mind, his Cheshire smile nailing Twain, "You're mine."

Tacit is Twain's reply, Nos morituri te salutamus, the hard-core collector's lament. We who are about to die salute you.

Twain goes on to describe his general feelings about the hobby, which apply to any collectible:

"It is the failing of the true keramiker, or the true devotee in any department of bric-a-brackery, that once he gets his tongue or his pen started on his darling theme, he cannot well stop until he drops from exhaustion…[as if] talking of his sweetheart. The very 'marks' on the bottom of a piece of rare crockery are able to throw me into a gibbering ecstasy; and I could forsake a drowning relative to help dispute about about whether the stopple of a departed Buon Retiro scent-bottle was genuine or spurious…

"…Many people…make fun of him for chasing around after what they choose to call 'his despicable trifles;' and for 'gushing' over these trifles; and for exhibiting his 'deep infantile delight' in what they call his 'tuppenny collection of beggarly trivialities;'…

"It is easy to say these things...

"For my part I am content to be a bric-a-bracker and a keramiker – more, I am proud to be so named. I am proud to know that I lose my reason immediately in the presence of a rare jug with an illustrious mark on the bottom of it, as if I had just emptied that jug."

It's seduction of the innocent collector by silver-tongued dealers, who, during the nineteenth century, were an often notorious lot who were matchmakers for a price, sold romance at a premium, and were pitiless when reeling in a big fish with sappy smile and deep pockets. And if the unfortunate creature wore a white suit, had a shock of white hair, smoked a black cigar, and told funny stories it was a great white whale primed for the harpoon and happy about it.

This is a wonderful manuscript chapter from one of Twain's most popular travel narratives, and such a deal: a copy of the first published edition of A Tramp Abroad is thrown in as a bonus.

TWAIN, Mark [Samuel L. Clemens]. Autograph manuscript to Chapter XX of A Tramp Abroad. Octavo (200 × 135 mm), 43-leaf autograph manuscript in purple and black ink and pencil, generally rectos only, with numerous corrections, each leaf on a paper-guard. Bound with a portrait frontispiece, custom letterpress title-page, and the corresponding leaves from a copy of the first edition. Early twentieth-century red straight-grain morocco, titles and single-line rule to upper board gilt, marbled endpapers, top edge gilt. Housed in a red cloth slipcase and chemise. Portrait frontispiece. Contents slightly toned and occasionally marked, closed tear to final leaf professionally repaired. Excellent condition.

Manuscript images courtesy of Peter Harrington Rare Books, with our thanks.

Book images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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