By Ray O’Hanlon
A signed copy of "Finnegans Wake" is a great thing to own. But does money buy understanding? Of course it doesn’t, but that did not deter one well-heeled bidder from forking out $5,800 for a copy of the James Joyce puzzler, complete with the author’s fairly neat, right-slanting signature, at the Swann Galleries in Manhattan last week.
Lot 150, courtesy of Mr. Joyce and its most recent owner — described in the catalog as "an Irish Gentleman" — was one of 405 items on the block for "The Irish Sale," the first of its kind in New York.
Books, maps, posters, documents, engravings and letters signed by famous Irish literary and historical figures such as Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, James Connolly, Charles Stewart Parnell and Daniel O’Connell were snapped up in brisk bidding within the room and from farther afield via phone.
"Finnegans Wake" fetched the biggest single sum of the day but it was only one of many significant items on offer.
A "Broadside printing" of the 1916 Proclamation attracted a winning bid of $3,400 while a series of "Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland" dating from the late 19th century, and numbering in excess of 250 "photozincographed plates," fetched $5,200.
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A numbered edition of James Joyce’s masterpiece "Ulysses," from the first English edition printed in France, went for $1,200, while a copy of the first batch of the book printed in England was sold for $800.
Though Joyce was responsible for the biggest single sale, and while the works of other leading Irish writers were on offer, it was a writing sample from a young John F. Kennedy that attracted one of the higher prices.
The Kennedy work was a signed carbon copy of an article penned by the future president for the New York Journal American in 1945. The subject was the partition of Ireland and efforts by Eamon de Valera to end it.
"At this weekend," Kennedy concluded, "the problem of partition seems very far from being solved." Kennedy’s signature, not to mention his political insight, resulted in a $1,200 price tag for the article.
The brush, as much as the pen, can be mightier than the sword and so it was the case with Lot 59, "A Lament for Art O’Leary." The translation from Irish by Frank O’Connor would have been an item of curiosity on its own. But it was the six hand-colored illustrations by Jack Yeats that prompted a selling price of $1,200 — double the estimated value.
While some of the sale items were of considerable vintage, others were quite new. A letter signed by poet Seamus Heaney fetched a comparatively humble $70 — but it was only four years old. At some future Irish sale, perhaps centuries from now, this note will doubtless spur feverish bidding.
Some maps on the block, though old, looked quite new, this being testimony to the fact that things were once made to last. A framed map entitled "The Kingdome of Irland" appeared as new as the day its ink dried. That day was one of the 365 in 1610. It fetched $1,000.
At the end of Thursday’s sale, the Irish gentleman — who had expressed a firm desire to be as anonymous as he was suddenly richer — had benefited to the tune of $150,179.