Personal Letters From The Past Deliver Interest In The Saleroom

Personal Letters From The Past Deliver Interest In The Saleroom

01/04/2024     General News

There are some people in history who have become so universally known that it can be hard to think of them as real people, writes Emily Ayson. 

Often their achievements or their historical impact outshine the fact that they, like all of us, were human beings.

So it is always fascinating to catch a glimpse of their personal selves, almost always through what they wrote during their lives. 

Although it shouldn’t be, it is sometimes surprising to see an idea or a concept which we take for granted in the form in which it was first written.  The author at that stage perhaps didn’t know that what they were writing would be world-changing; they may even have believed they would struggle to find a publisher.

Last year at Keys we auctioned an English language first edition of Albert Einstein’s ‘Relativity – The Special and The General Theory’, a transformative piece of thinking which went on to be arguably the single most important piece of science of the 20th century.

First published in 1916 in Germany (the English version dates from 1920), this was the first time that Einstein had put on paper the two theories which would transform theoretical physics and astronomy during the 20th century, superseding a 200-year-old theory of mechanics created primarily by Isaac Newton.

Such early manifestations of ideas which have been world-changing are unsurprisingly much sought-after in the saleroom, but it is not only published works which can reveal the personal thoughts of those who have become iconic figures.  Personal correspondence can be even more illuminating.

In the same sale as the Einstein book last year was a handwritten letter by Queen Victoria, expressing condolences to the daughter of the Bishop of Peterborough, who had recently died.  It is most revealing of the continued sadness of the Queen herself about the loss of Prince Albert, who had died less than three years previously.

Written on black-bordered writing paper, the Queen shows surprising insight into her own grief, writing, ‘Alas!  All those who knew him then are going fast.  I feel more and more sadly lonely in the midst of my desolation!’

Victoria was a prolific letter writer, but nevertheless personal correspondence like this is very much sought after by collectors – this was a very intimate letter in which the Queen opened her heart about her own grief.

In the last 12 months we have seen hand-written personal letters written by as diverse people as Charles Dickens, Yehudi Menuhin and Spike Milligan go under the hammer at Keys.

In an age of television and social media, it is unlikely that today’s iconic figures will ever be so private as those from the past were.  But what they consigned to paper can offer us a insight into their real selves just as much – probably more – than today’s tweets and Tik-Tok videos will ever do for future scholars.  Which is why there is such a healthy demand for such writings in the saleroom.

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