The Value of Letters at Auction

I enjoyed this recent article from the This Is Money website discussing Bonham’s sale of Audrey Hepburn letters.  The article presents factor’s affecting the value of celebrity and political letters in the market:

Darling, that’s priceless! As Hepburn’s letters fetch £11,250 at an auction, here’s our guide to why notes from the past are creating a buzz for collectors  

Letters from a young Audrey Hepburn to her mentor Sir Felix Aylmer fetched £11,250 this month at auction thanks to the enthusiasm of collectors for the handwritten word.

Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at auction house Bonhams, says that authentic letters by famous or noted people have appreciated in value in recent years.

He cites the example of a letter by artist and poet William Blake, which sold for £35,000 in 2015, having previously made £15,000 in 1992.

Poster featuring Audrey Hepburn in 1957 musical romantic comedy 'Funny Face'

Poster featuring Audrey Hepburn in 1957 musical romantic comedy ‘Funny Face’

The Hepburn letters, which were auctioned by Bonhams, were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career.

They include a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby. ‘This place is heavenly the best thing that’s happened to me,’ Hepburn writes, while another letter announces the breaking off of her engagement to British industrialist James Hanson, which she describes as ‘unhappy making’.

‘The letters are candid,’ Haley says. ‘Context is everything with letters, and this is a young Audrey Hepburn near the beginning of her career, with enthusiasm bubbling out of her.’

Hepburn’s letters are not the only ones to have fetched a high price at auction in recent years. A letter from author Virginia Woolf to a sick friend, urging him to ‘go on living’, fetched £1,150 last December. The letter was written the year before Woolf committed suicide.

Chris Albury, auctioneer and senior valuer at Dominic Winter auctioneers, where the letter was sold, says that the subject matter, as well as the fact that Woolf died relatively young, helped to push up the price.

The Hepburn letters were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career

The Hepburn letters were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career

‘Anything that gives a little buzz to it is good,’ he says. ‘If it had just been a letter responding to an invitation to give a talk and saying that she couldn’t attend, it would have been worth far less.’

Adrian Roose, of website JustCollecting, agrees that a letter’s value is down to its content as well as its author. He says: ‘Salacious gossip, discussing historical events, is gold dust.

‘A good example is Albert Einstein. He wrote to his wife on an almost daily basis. The content of these letters is pretty unremarkable and they tend to sell for a few thousand pounds. But find a letter where he discusses E=mc² and the price jumps to £100,000 plus.’

The auctioned Hepburn letters included a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby

The auctioned Hepburn letters included a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby

As a result of their content, letters are generally worth more than autographs, and even those that are not from famous people can be valuable if associated with historic events.

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000 – and a letter from Wallace Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, sold for £93,000 the year before.

Letters from soldiers in famous battles, such as Waterloo, also fetch a high price. ‘They give us a different perspective on history,’ Haley says.

Other factors affecting the value of letters include their rarity. ‘Letters by politicians are usually collectible,’ Albury says.

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000

‘But the works of particularly prolific letter writers, such as British Prime Minister William Gladstone, are worth little because there are so many of them. A letter by Gladstone could be worth between £30 and £40 while one by Churchill could be worth more than £300.’

Potential pitfalls for collectors include buying letters that are in poor condition – and accidentally buying fakes or copies. Albury says that forgery is not a new crime, and that prolific writers such as Byron were forged in their own time.

Many popular figures also sent out lithographed letters that may look handwritten but were actually machine made. The best way to check this is to look through a magnifying glass, as those letters that are genuinely handwritten will look less uniform in terms of the distribution of the ink.

Expert valuers, such as those at auction houses, may also be able to help. Check any vendors for membership of trade associations – such as the Autograph Fair Trade Association – as they will face penalties if they sell fake items.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak in 1961's classic Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak in 1961’s classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s

It is still possible to make amazing finds. One collector found an original US Declaration of Independence at a flea market. ‘From memory he paid $4 and sold it for $4million. A good day’s work,’ says Roose at JustCollecting.

Letters can easily be damaged by poor conditions such as damp or sunlight. If you want to frame letters, ensure you use a framer who is an expert and uses UV protective glass and acid free paper.

Albury says that for many collectors, letters are more exciting than first editions of books because they are unique.

He says: ‘A first edition – even if it is beautiful – is a machine made thing. Handwritten letters are so much closer to the creator.’

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Art Theft Gone Wrong

I have always been fascinated with art theft.  It may be the vision I have of myself as a detective solving international art crimes and breaking up art trafficking rings. In my daydreams of this I am pretty sure I have an English accent.

This Artsy article caught my attention because not only is it about art theft – it is about art theft bloopers.  And bloopers are another of my favorite things.  Please enjoy…

8 Art Thefts That Went Wrong

Pablo Picasso, who would go on to become the world’s most frequently pilfered artist, once said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Bad ones? They get caught. Here are the stories of eight attempted art heists that were something less than masterpieces.


For decades, a sketch by Salvador Dalí was displayed at Rikers Island—an apology from the Surrealist painter for cancelling a prison art class he was scheduled to teach in 1965. The work originally hung in the cafeteria near the trash cans, where it collected a handful of ketchup stains. Officials later transferred it to the lobby, thinking that Dalí’s depiction of the crucifixion would be safer there. Little did they know that in 2003, four prison guards would band together and snatch the sketch, orchestrating a fake fire alarm to distract the 24-hour guard. Impressive planning, perhaps; however, the replica they hung in its place was anything but. The New York Times notedthat “the fake Dalí seemed to have been drawn by a child, one with no artistic talent.” Even more telling, the drawing was now stapled to the back of the Plexiglas case rather than displayed in its original gold-leaf mahogany frame. Unsurprisingly, other members of Rikers’s staff noticed the Dalí’s rapid transformation, and the thieves were soon outed.


If you want something stolen right, consider stealing it yourself. A U.K.-based organized crime ring learned that lesson the hard way in February, when 14 men linked to the group were convicted in connection with a series of British museum heists. The gang’s biggest mistake was employing another, frequently incompetent, group of thieves to execute its plans remotely. In an early burglary, the hired accomplices were in the midst of fleeing from upstanding members of the British public who had given chase, when one dropped a stolen rhino head that turned out to be heavier than expected.

The comedy of errors didn’t end there. In a subsequent robbery, the thieves bashed a hole in the wall of Durham’s Oriental Museum late one night, spiriting away a figurine and a Ming jade bowl worth up to £16 million. But they promptly forgot where they had stashed the loot, allowing the authorities to recover the objects a week later. Unfortunately, it’s not all laughs. A successful burglary of a Cambridge museum in April 2012 finally netted the group somewhere between £18 and £57 million in stolen jade pieces.


They successfully hijacked a Federal Express truck and outfitted themselves in stolen employee uniforms. They remembered to pack handcuffs and duct tape to restrain the museum guards. But, as Brian M. McDevitt and his partner could tell you, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Stuck in rush hour traffic, the aspiring thieves didn’t make it to the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, until after closing time.

While that 1981 scheme may have been a bust, it bears a striking resemblance to one of history’s most infamous art heists. In March 1990, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed by two uniformed men who managed to handcuff the guards on duty, then duct-tape them to pipes in the basement. Their haul, which included a Vermeer, twoRembrandts, a Manet, and five works by Degas, has since been estimated at $500 million. Although McDevitt denied involvement in the Stewart Gardner robbery up to his death in 2004, he remained a suspect. The Massachusetts man was questioned by the FBI and even sat before a federal grand jury in conjunction with the case, which remains unsolved to this day.


In general, art thieves are not crack art historians. Sometimes, they’re not even very thoughtful planners. Exhibiting a costly combination of these two deficiencies, a group pilfered several paintings from South Africa’s notoriously insecure Pretoria Art Museum—only to leave the most valuable work behind when they realized it wouldn’t fit into their Toyota Avanza (an automobile apparently better suited for soccer moms than art thieves). In 2012, two men in Sweden were also foiled by the dimensions of their vehicle, this time a good old American Ford. They tried in vain to stuff a Carl Larsson work into the car, but “it was too big,” a bystander noted astutely. Perhaps as revenge, the thieves nearly ran over the painting (valued between $428,000 and $713,000) as they sped away.


It was almost the biggest art heist in Dutch history. In April 1991, two gunmen stole 20 major paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The thieves took a leisurely 45 minutes to select the works they wanted; just 35 minutes later, the Van Goghs were found abandoned in a parked car in front of a nearby railroad station. Authorities were initially mystified by the turn of events, with newspapers labeling it the nation’s “strangest” art theft. Further investigation revealed that a second car, meant to rendezvous with the robbers and haul away the loot, had gotten a flat tire and failed to show up. With no time to devise a new escape route, the gunmen were assumed to have given up on the paintings and fled. They were never apprehended.


In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia simply wrapped the Mona Lisa in his smock, tucked it under his arm and strolled out of the Louvre. The same strategydidn’t quite pan out for a man perusing the works on display at a British art gallery in 2014. Surveillance cameras monitored his progress as he stopped in front of a £700 painting, checked to see if anyone was watching, then proceeded to shove the artwork into his hoodie. Bumbling he might have been, but a quitter he was not—when it didn’t fit under his jacket, the man put the work under his arm instead and strode towards the exit. Naturally, gallery staff barred his way; he surrendered the painting before fleeing the scene.


Unsurprisingly, it’s harder to steal the art when it comes with the wall attached. That didn’t stop an enterprising pair in New Orleans, who in 2014 erected a plywood screen around a Banksy mural known locally asUmbrella Girl or Rain Girl (2008). Residents glimpsed them hacking away at the building; the men told passersby that the work was “going to London for a big show.” A neighborhood man grew suspicious, however, when the suspects couldn’t produce the name of the museum or the owner of the building. Their cover unraveling, the two men fled, leaving the mural intact. And that wasn’t the first time a Banksy work was in such a situation—in 2006, a gang tried to filch a spray painting called Liverpool Love Rat (2004) on the door of an old building. Dressed like construction workers and carrying tools, the men were struggling to remove the heavy door when a building employee spotted them. They ran away empty-handed.


Most art thieves are motivated by the promise of millions. The thief who robbed the Jewish Museum in 2001, however, had far loftier goals. In the midst of a 200-person cocktail party, a Marc Chagall painting worth $1 million disappeared from the museum’s wall. The only clue left behind was a single metal screw—that is, until the museum received a ransom note postmarked from the Bronx. Signed the “International Committee for Art and Peace,” the letter demanded a resolution to conflict between Israel and Palestine before the painting would be returned to its rightful owners. The thief must have grown tired of waiting for the museum to iron out the subtleties of international diplomacy, because eight months later the work turned up in a mailroom in Topeka, Kansas.

—Abigail Cain and Isaac Kaplan