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Buying Mark Twain's letter at auction

October 15, 2012

Curators greet auction house catalogs with anticipation when they arrive in our museum mailboxes. Within the sumptuous pages of exquisite photography we might discover a significant treasure to add to our collections. When a Sotheby’s catalog arrived offering a substantial collection of Mark Twain letters, it piqued our interest. You see, we have the last portrait of Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, in our collections and a family drop leaf writing table. Could something being offered at this auction further our knowledge of these pieces?

The story of how The Henry Ford came to own these pieces documents the rich legacy our collections hold. Clemens’ daughter Clara was married to Ossip Gabrilowitsch, conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A Russian emigre, he was stricken with stomach cancer and treated at Henry Ford Hospital. Gabrilowitsch’s stay was long and difficult; his care was costly. Henry Ford forgave the bill and in gratitude, Clara gave Ford these family pieces in 1936, and they came into the museum. The portrait is oil on canvas by Edoardo Gelli and was painted in Florence, Italy in 1904. The table was used by Clemens in his later year.s.

The auction collection was divided into hundreds of lots, and we carefully reviewed what was being offered. Contained in Lot 551 was a fascinating letter dated May 26, 1904, from Clemens to Governor David Francis of Missouri. Interestingly, the auction house had only published information from the first page of the two-page letter. They would not release the second page until we pressed them. And, it was the second page that revealed the “smoking gun.” The gist of the letter was to ask the Missouri-native if he would participate in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, organized to commemorate the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Regretfully Clemens, who was living in Florence, declined the invitation because of his wife’s poor health. The friendly letter bears some of Mark Twain’s trademark humor. And, more significantly had a direct reference to the portrait in our collection. “Although I can not be at the fair, I am going to be there anyway, by a portrait of professor Gelli. You will find it excellent. Good judges say it is better than the original. They say it has all the merits of the original and keeps still besides.”

All additions to the collections are stringently reviewed by the Collections Committee. We reviewed the materials and debated the value of this letter to the story of the portrait. And, what we could pay for it. As with any museum, dollars for acquisitions are limited. A “not to exceed” amount was designated. Now, the tense moments of the auction itself. We decided to bid by phone. Marc Greuther, chief curator, Terry Hoover, chief archivist, and I huddled by the phone and waited for Sotheby’s to call to begin the bidding. We really wanted this piece, but saw that other things were going for higher prices than estimated. When the lot we wanted came up for bid, we plunged in. And, WE GOT IT! With great anticipation, we waited for the precious document to arrive. There is something magical about seeing an original - the paper, ink, handwriting of a famous person that gives a “feel” for the past. The letter was added to the collection.

Mark Twain letter from auction

When we united these pieces of the past - the portrait and the letter - we could see the curators in heaven applaud. And, we think Samuel and Clara Clemens were pleased too.

Marilyn Zoidis, Director, Historical Resources, recognized this as one of those “museum moments” that makes her love this work.

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