Lawyer’s love of Russian works shines through

Russian literary firsts and related manuscripts were the focus of one of the many major sales held in the UK, Europe and the US at the year’s end.

Extracted from Antiques Trade Gazette | Ian McKay

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Offered at Christie’s (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) on November 28 was a collection assembled over the past two decades by R Eden Martin, a Chicago lawyer.

It was promoted as the most important of its kind seen outside Russia since the dispersal of the Diaghilev-Lifar library, conducted by Sotheby’s Monaco in 1975.

The sale was divided into two sections. The first comprised 97 lots and focused principally on works of the early 19th century and the second, larger selection of 130 lots featured 20th century works. Overall, three-quarters of these lots sold.

Nikolai Gogol was responsible for the day’s highest bid, but it was the revered figure of Alexander Pushkin who dominated the opening session.

In a contemporary Russian binding, an 1820 first issue of his first book, the poem Ruslan and Ludmilla – one of only three copies recorded at auction – set the tone by selling at £65,000.

The Fountain at Bakhchiserai of 1824 has been described as the first Russian best-seller in verse, though its author was somewhat dismissive of the work, which he claims to have written only to secure the fee of 3000 roubles. This copy sold at £50,000.

Illustrated on the catalogue cover was a copy of the 1825, first part of what the cataloguer termed “the most important work in Russian literature”, a rare example in original wrappers of the first published portion of the poem Eugene Onegin.

Presenting just the opening chapter of Pushkin’s masterpiece, it marks the print debut of the ‘novel in verse’ that is generally regarded as the most loved work in all Russian literature.

The complete work was published in six further parts over seven years and in this form is among the rarest of all Russian books of the 19th century.References were made in the catalogue to the “legendary collection” of NP Smirnov- Sokol’skii, but even his set of the parts issue of this famous poem did not run to a copy of the first part in original wrappers. No other example is recorded at auction and this rarity made £55,000.

Huge library

Sold at £80,000 was a copy in a contemporary Russian binding of the first book-form edition of Eugene Onegin that once graced the enormous library of the Russian statesman and historian Count Sheremetev.

The first published collection of Pushkin’s poetry, dated 1826 but actually issued in the last days of December 1825, was another success at £85,000. Pushkin had lost his original manuscript in a card game in 1820 but bought it back for 500 roubles using profits from the sales of that first part of Eugene Onegin.

Other notable results among the 15 Pushkin lots included, at £60,000, an 1831 first in original wrappers of Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, his first published collection of prose – though one in which he pretended to be only the publisher, not the author.

Sold at £42,000 was an 1831 first of Boris Godunov, which among all his works was the writer’s personal favourite.

The collection’s top lot, and one that doubled the high estimate at £140,000, was an 1831-32 first of Gogol’s first great literary success, Evenings on a farm near Dikanka.

A two-volume collection of comical tales of provincial life, here bound as one, it had been preceded by a self-published poem that had been so panned by critics that Gogol bought all the copies he could find and destroyed them. In December 2015, a copy of Evenings… in the Pierre Bergé library was sold in Paris for €120,000 (then around £87,600).

The most expensive of the Dostoevsky lots in the recent London sale was, at a record £55,000, an 1881 first in a handsome and contemporary binding of green cloth gilt of The Brothers Karamazov.

Other Dostoevsky highlights included an 1866, first separately published edition of Notes from the Underground and an 1867 first of Crime and Punishment at £24,000 apiece, and at £26,000 an 1874 first of The Idiot.

In a Christie’s Paris (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) sale of November 20, an 1861 first of a work known in English as The Insulted and Humiliated to which Dostoevsky had added a brief but rarely seen presentation inscription was sold at €65,000 (£57,850). The recipient was Stepan Yanovsky, who had once been the family doctor.

‘Without equal’

A work of which Dostoevsky declared “as art it is perfection” and one that others have described as without equal, a three-decker first in a contemporary red and gilt cloth binding of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina sold at £22,000 as part of the London auction. The spine of the third volume was badly faded.

What was dubbed the ‘Silver Age’ section of the sale opened with a very rare 1912 first of Anna Akhmatova’s first book, Evening, at £9500, but it was an early corrected carbon copy typescript of her famous Poem Without a Hero, inscribed in July 1945 for a friend, the composer Aleksei Kozlovskii, that sold at £36,000.

Illustrated above is the cover of a 1913 first of OE Mandel’shtam’s Stone, his first published work. Inscribed by the poet to Viacheslav Ivanov, a key figure who has been described as “the uncrowned king of Petersburg poets and co-leader with Alexander Bok of the Symbolist movement”, who held weekly gatherings of writers at his home, it sold at £95,000.

Sold at £49,000 was a two-page letter of 1935 in which Maria Tsvetaeva writes to a fellow poet, Nikolai Tokhonov, about a disconcerting meeting with Boris Pasternak.

“It troubles me that everything which to me is right, is to Boris sinful and diseased…,” she writes, and admits: “I cried because Boris, the best Lyrical poet of our time, betrayed Lyricism in front of my very eyes, calling himself and everything within himself diseased.”