What I Learned: Thomas Venning, Books and Manuscripts Manager

You should not wear gloves when handling books and manuscripts. They make you clumsy and pick up static electricity. Any museum or library will tell you that. A few years ago, a scholar robbed a manuscript at an auction without gloves and then someone wrote, “I can’t think of a faster way to damage a manuscript!” Well, I can think of a lot of faster ways. Gloves are a red herring.

The time I spent reading as a kid was great preparation for what I do now. Books were my absolute world. It was a bit of an eccentric childhood by today’s standards, and I probably should have gone out more.

Working at Christie’s can create magical moments. I grew up in Durham, North East England. We lived right next to the cathedral and my parents were organ builders. In 2016, Christie’s entrusted a rare manuscript (below) of Bach – the most important figure in organ music a million miles away – which sold for £2.5million. My father came to see him in my office and we listened to the music while turning the pages of Bach’s original score. It was very special.

I didn’t expect end up in one of the few jobs in the world where Latin was an essential skill. After studying classics and English at Oxford University, I worked briefly for my parents. But being an organ builder was not for me. I can’t be trusted with a hammer.

Greater equality and diversity have improved Christie’s. I applied for my first role at Christie’s in 1998 because the job title sounded funny. At the time, Christie’s looked like a gentlemen’s club, with lots of dark wood throughout. I went to a formal lunch and asked someone why he only signed the guestbook with his last name. They replied, ‘It’s not my surname, it’s my title.’ It’s different now.

The way to liquidate someone in my field is to confuse the words signature with autograph. It’s like a red rag for a bull. If a Stephen Hawking letter is described as “autograph”, that means he wrote it. If he also signed it, then it is a “signed autograph letter”.

Autograph documents take you back to a moment in history. In 2012 we sold an autograph letter signed by Lord Nelson. Reading his thoughts as they were born on paper was like traveling back in time to his cabin on board HMS Victory in the months preceding the Battle of Trafalgar. It was an extraordinary feeling.

There are only four documents in the world bearing Shakespeare’s signature. My dream send-off would be to meet one of them – they’re as close as ever to a personal connection to one of the greatest and most mysterious figures in literary history. Sadly that will never happen – they are all in UK public collections.

A big part of my job is solving puzzles. I may be deciphering the text of a medieval papal charter or trying to figure out mathematical equations on a doctoral thesis from the 1960s. Once I know what I’m dealing with, my next question is, “Does it matter?” »

For example, it could be a thank you note from Charles Dickens to someone we’ve never heard of, or it could be something he wrote to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen discussing his first novel. . The importance of the document lies in the links it establishes between the author and his life’s work.

We sell a lot of things that have never been auctioned before. Mainly because books and manuscripts are very easy to misplace. A client came to see me once after finding a letter from Isaac Newton at the bottom of a drawer. On the other hand, many collectors are hesitant to sell because it’s not like they need to make room for more. You can always squeeze an extra book onto a shelf.

An unusual part of my job is to enhance archives. When we arrive at a domain, the Old Master team goes straight to the living room, the silver team goes down to the vaults, and I will often end up in the stable.

I remember being alone in the tower of a 14th century English castle with no heating and water pouring through the plastic sheeting covering the windows. The family archives were stored in huge tin trunks on shelves that reached to the ceiling. I said to myself: “If I try to reach those above, I will die”. So I didn’t.

Einstein is a fashion icon. In 2016, we recorded his leather jacket (above) from his archives. I didn’t try it out of respect, but it was purchased by Levi Strauss & Co and they made a replica of it which I carry around my quiet corner of South West London. No one has ever recognized him—yet.

Everyone who knew Oscar Wilde said he made conversation into an art form. He would be my dream dinner guest— I would like to hear him speak. In 2001, we sold a transcript of 30 witness statements from his libel trial that detailed his sex life. The document appeared out of nowhere, and at first people assumed it couldn’t be genuine.



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Prices for books and manuscripts tend to remain stable. That said, a premium material will still do the trick. Buying Einstein’s scientific letters ten years ago would have been a very smart thing to do.

People want the best masterpieces in all genres. When I started, collectors tended to focus on a niche area, like a specific author. I still have a collector who only wants documents on infectious diseases. These days, however, collectors look for anything by a big name if it’s of great importance. As in many fields, the collection landscape is constantly changing.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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