The Value of a Letter

Inside the Art Market: The Value of A Letter

Writing to an acquaintance in a letter dated February 17, 1947, Diana Vreeland, the flamboyant fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, recounted a recent trip to California and all the wondrous sights she had beheld there. In sentences bursting with impressions thrown off like vivid, colorful splats on a canvas, she conjures up scenes of film stars on sound stages, homes of the rich and famous in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, dress factories in Hollywood and socialites up and down the coast, art collectors with French pictures and, the most amazing of all to her, how in Hollywood everybodystars, agents, producers, directors, waiters, people in shops—has the most wonderful teeth.

It’s a breathtaking carnival ride of rapid-fire thrills delivered with many theatrical and amusing flourishes in three dense pages of blazing, witty commentary. And throughout her performance Mrs. Vreeland draws the reader ever deeper into her confidence, weaving a narrative spell both charming and irresistible:

Pebble Beach and Santa Barbara are divine. Palm Springs and the desert are o.k. for those who like to be inland, and although I love the sun, I have to be by the sea. Also, I found the Pacific to be a flop. It has none of the excitement that makes me love the sea. I did not feel at all exalted the first time I saw it, whereas every time I see the Atlantic I die over the excitement of this glorious, enormous, terrifying expanse of water.

She signs off with a flourish, sending oceans of love, but not before adding an effusive postscript: she has just attended a private screening at the Music Hall hosted by none other than the owner of Universal Pictures. It was a new English production of Great Expectations,” the most delicious, satisfying, divine picture you can imagine. The letter thus finally ends, and presumably Mrs. Vreeland was immediately back to the glamorous world of a magazine fashion editor in the 1940s, of photo shoots with Richard Avedon and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, atelier visits in Paris to Mainbocher and Chanel, celebrities galore, endless parties, El Morocco and cigarettes.

This particular letter has an interesting lost-and-found story behind it. The person who lost it was the designer Bill Blass.

It had been sent to him, within a folio of several other letters, some years after the death of Mrs. Vreeland, an old and dear friend of his, in hopes that he might be able to help with the acquisition of Mrs. Vreeland’s papers by the New York City Public Library. The folio was intended to give Blass a sampling of the wonderful treasures tucked within the vast Vreeland Archive.

But the folio went missing, perhaps swallowed up by Blass’s own papers, artwork and correspondence amidst his clamorous social and professional life. The folio thus became an insurance claim. After Blass’s death the entire folio resurfaced, impelling the insurance company to consign the Vreeland folio—along with the amusing Hollywood letter of 1947—for sale at auction.

Suddenly, these seven modest letters to and from Diana Vreeland had entered the art market. They had become something to collect, to treasure. Who could have foreseen such a thing?

I marvel sometimes at how the art of letter writing has all but died. After all, everyone used to write letters. One had to send them home to one’s parents from camp or boarding school; one thrilled to getting them during “mail call” in the military; a visit to the mailbox or the post office was a daily moment of exhilaration and anticipation, of triumph and despair. Handwriting was thus deemed an art form, and the handwritten note or letter was all the more prized for its personal flourishes and penmanship. Of course a typed letter was also welcomed, even a postcard. The postman’s arrival each day was truly an event.

But no longer. The advent of AOL and the chirpy, robotic “You’ve got mail!” announcement on a desktop computer was the beginning of the end. Letter writing was suddenly a dead form of communication, old-fashioned and quaint, trimmed even further of any excess in the age of Twitter. Indeed, Twitter as a form of expression seems curiously reminiscent of the old Western Union telegrams in terms of brevity, bluntness and utter lack of charm or style.

But letters, real letters, have long been prized and sought after in the art market. In this regard they are similar to musical manuscripts in their appeal to collectors who see them as unique and very personal forms of artistry and self-expression, artifacts of culture, learning, even entertainment. Indeed, many letters read like short stories, with almost haunting voices and scene-like embellishments and drama. They can be whimsical and breathless, like Mrs. Vreeland’s letter to her friend about the wonders of Hollywood. They might be dashed off and forgotten once posted in the mail, and yet live on and on like a snapshot long forgotten and yet suddenly pulled from a drawer and thus discovered anew.

And yet aren’t letters really an almost extinct field of endeavor and interest, a quaint throwback in an art world gone mad for selfies and all things contemporary?

I put the question to Francis Wahlgren, the esteemed former head of the international books and manuscripts department at Christies: “Are letters even an active field of collecting today?” “Absolutely,” he replied, “but tastes have changed dramatically.”

The so-called ‘example’ letters that were once the mainstay of the market, he explained, those impressive-looking period letters from Presidents like Lincoln and Washington, authors like Dickens and Hemingway, and even ones from the kings and queens of England, had gone utterly flat, their value modest and demand for them falling. “Collectors now want modern letters,” said Wahlgren, “and the more historic and technological the better.”

To illustrate his point Wahlgren noted the sale at Christie’s in April 2013 of what had come to be known as “The Secret of Life” letter.

It was written by Francis Crick in March 1953 to his 12-year old son Michael, explaining with impassioned words and hand-drawn illustrations the great scientific discovery that he and his laboratory partner James Watson had just made and were about to publish. This, of course, was the discovery of DNA. Crick and Watson would eventually win the Nobel Prize for this discovery, but that was several years away. The “Secret of Life” letter was thus a short rehearsal in words and pictures of a momentous scientific breakthrough that was about to be shared with the world, but which Crick wanted to share first with his son.

Wahlgren remembers, however, that the path this letter took to the saleroom was not an easy one. It had been locked away in a vault for many years. When it was first brought to the attention of someone at Christie’s, it was given a meaningless estimate and all but dismissed. But Michael Crick persisted. “Perhaps you don’t fully realize how important this letter really is,” he said, prompting Wahlgren to enter the picture and take a look himself.

“Right away I knew this was a million-dollar letter,” he recalled. But achieving this sort of price was almost unprecedented. The letter seemed not to fit into the usual category of letters most often offered for sale at auction, the old presidential warhorses from Lincoln and Mark Twain. It was so contemporary, dating from 1953 and highly technical in nature, despite a charming lyricism and lightness:

Dear Michael, 

Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery. We have built a model for the structure of des-oxy-ribose-nucleic acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes—which carry the hereditary factors—are made up of protein and D.N.A Our structure is very beautiful.

Crick ended the seven-page letter, addressed to Michael at his boarding school, with the words, “Lots of love, Daddy.”

The more that Francis Wahlgren thought about this extraordinary letter and its prospects for sale at auction, the more he realized that there was now in the art market a vast worldwide audience of extremely wealthy collectors seeking items just like this: ones emblematic of a great technological advance. After all, Bill Gates had bought a Leonardo da Vinci notebook with over 300 scientific illustrations and writings for $30.8 million in 1994; a letter written by Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt urging development of an atomic bomb had brought over $2 million at auction. Tech billionaires were now major players in the art market, and they were fascinated by modern cultural artifacts. A vintage Apple computer, one of only fifty made in Steve Jobs’ garage in 1976, had made $905,000 at auction, way over its estimate.

So what might this letter be worth, and how best to position it for sale?

Christie’s decided to go all in, said Wahlgren, mounting a major global marketing campaign for the Crick letter and giving it a bold and almost shocking estimate of $1,000,000-1,500,000. The “Secret of Life” theme for the sale proved riveting to potential bidders, as did the issue of extreme rarity that Christie’s stressed in the catalogue. Since most of Crick’s scientific papers had been given to a library in London, further material relating to the discovery of DNA was—the auction house helpfully made clear—unlikely to appear on the market.

The stage had been set. What followed in the saleroom at Christie’s on April 10, 2013 was an all-out bidding war. When the hammer finally came down an anonymous buyer had won the letter for an astounding price of $6,059,750. “We had interest from all over the world, even from the Middle East,” commented Wahlgren. “It was, of course, an all-time record price for a letter.”

Let us return to that lost folio of Diana Vreeland letters. I neglected to mention earlier that one of the letters in the folio, indeed the most important and valuable, was one that had been sent to Diana Vreeland. The letter began with the following breezy request:

Dear Mrs. Vreeland,

I write to you in the hopes that in your busy life you could find a couple of minutes to help me solve an enormous problem, which is CLOTHES! 

The sender of this 10-page letter was Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy. It was dated August 1960 and written on blue stationary with the heading Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. And indeed Mrs. Kennedy had a problem of some timeliness to share with Mrs. Vreeland. Her husband was running for President and she needed to start buying clothes made by American rather than French designers:

I never had many French clothes anyway—a couple of things a year from Givenchy . . .It is impossible to shop in stores unless you live in New York and I just don’t have the time now.

 She offered a sketch of a “Wool Day Dress” as an example of what she had in mind, and even ventured to raise the possibility that her husband would win the election and she would have to find an inaugural ball gown. She then closed with a bit of news:

So many thanks for plowing through this tome—and please forgive me for bothering you—I just have a slight mania now for getting things organized far ahead—possibly because I’m having a baby & can’t move from one spot—

Much love

Jackie

This endearing letter, and the warm, practical response by Diana Vreeland that ensued offering ideas on dressmakers and even on the inaugural ball gown, is recounted at length in the recent biography Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. The book is a lively, colorful complement to another recent volume on Vreeland, a dazzling coffee-table tome sumptuously illustrated with fashion photographs of Vreeland’s years at Harper’s Bazaar from 1936-1962 entitled, fittingly, Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman, edited by Alexander Vreeland. Together the books suggest a very timely retrospective on the life and times of a woman of unique style and dazzle, a lady of soaring adjectives, of theatrical poses and air-kisses, but also one of genuine elegance and flare.

And endless curiosity, as she conveys in that lively letter of 1947 recounting her visit to Hollywood:

We cannot wait to see the Dior sketches and for the photographs after Carmel’s wire that he is the savior of Paree. Do write me a divine letter after Carmel goes as I am longing to know how individual people look; their hair, their jewels, the color of their lipstick and how they run their houses.

Eventually the Vreeland folio made its way into an auction saleroom. The shining star in this odd group was, not surprisingly, the Jacqueline Kennedy letter. The others were of no particular importance and thus of minimal value, part of the package, a bonus. The folio brought a modest $11,000 at auction and soon vanished into a private collection.

Like the momentous “Secret of Life” letter, Mrs. Kennedy’s letter to Diana Vreeland is no doubt pulled out every so often from a drawer, or perhaps from a bank vault, and reread, savored. Above all, it is perhaps treasured by its new owner for what it truly represents—an almost extinct form of human communication, once so prevalent and now so rare and all but vanished.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: 31st December 1952: From left to right, Slim Hawks (nee Nancy Gross, former wife of director Howard Hawks) chatting with Diana Vreeland (1903 – 1989) and her husband Reed at Kitty Miller’s New Year’s Eve party in Park Avenue, New York. Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images.)