By Ray O’Hanlon
James Joyce is Ireland’s latest returning emigrant — in so many words.
The handwritten "Circe" episode from Joyce’s "Ulysses" was flown back to Ireland last week, hours after it was sold at Christie’s in Manhattan for $1.4 million.
The price was above pre-sale estimates of $1 million and was paid by the National Library of Ireland.
The sale took place Thursday at lunchtime. By Friday morning, the document was in Dublin, the city described so vividly in "Ulysses," though not the city where the great work was written.
There had been word before the auction that the Irish government would be in the hunt for the manuscript.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
However, there was no clear indication during the bidding as to where the manuscript might end up. There had also been rumors of German interest.
Time was that a showdown between the deutschemark and punt would have been no contest.
But times have changed, especially in the sense that a country that once banned Joyce’s work now feels so compelled to embrace it — at no mean cost.
The autographed handwritten first draft of the "Circe" episode — which many scholars contend is the most crucial in "Ulysses" — had been once owned by John Quinn.
Quinn was the American lawyer and book collector who was both Joyce’s legal and financial champion in the United States, where the writer’s works were also banned, even as he reached the height of his creative powers.
Bidding for the document — estimated in value by Christie’s at between $800,000 and $1.2 million — began at $500,000. It moved quickly to $950,000 before pausing for a few moments. The million-dollar mark was then reached, though whether it was a mark in a German sense was unclear as bids came from both within the room and over the phone.
Within seconds, the bidding price had reached $1.2 million. There followed a brief period of confusion as the auctioneer had to confirm a phone bid of $1.3 million. It was confirmed, but a bidder in the room immediately went to $1.4 million.
It was all done and there was a ripple of applause in the room when it was quickly announced that the manuscript had been bought by the National Library, an institution where Joyce once studied and later used as a setting for portions of "Ulysses" and "A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man."
The buyer on behalf of the library was Edward Maggs, an antiquarian book dealer from London. Maggs expressed delight at his prize, or at least the prize he had captured on Ireland’s behalf.
The purchase, he said, was symbolic of the repatriation of the Irish diaspora’s culture.
He was "very happy" with the price and did not feel that it was overly expensive for what was an "extremely important manuscript."
Maggs, though clearly the man to have on your side at such a crucial sale, confessed to some nervousness as the bidding reached its climax.
"There’s always doubt at an auction," he said.
But there was no doubt back in Dublin, where anxious government and library officials had been on tenterhooks as the sale of Lot 232 loomed ever larger.
Maggs accompanied the "Circe" manuscript back to Dublin on a Thursday night flight. There was a delegation awaiting at Dublin airport.
It could only be guessed what Joyce himself would have made of all the fuss.