Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post was all about auctions; specifically, auctions of Elvis Presley memorabilia. As we observed yesterday, the most expensive piece of Elvis memorabilia sold to date that isn’t a gold Rolex watch is Presley’s 1942 Martin D-18 guitar, Serial Number 80221, which was auctioned off for $1,320,000 August 1, 2020. As I suggested in yesterday’s post, given its historical importance and provenance – Elvis owned the guitar between 1954 and 1956, began his career and made his first recordings (for Sun Records) with the guitar – the $1.32 million paid for the thing was a steal, anyway you strum it.

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) with his Martin D-18 guitar, 1955
Elvis Presley (1935-1977) with his Martin D-18 guitar, 1955

Anyway, that post about the prices paid for Elvis’ stuff got me to thinking about the prices paid for music manuscripts by the “great” composers, prices that dwarf the amount paid for Elvis’ Martin D-18 guitar.

The high prices brought by such manuscripts are a function of rarity. Handwritten musical scores by household name composers are excessively rare, as the overwhelming majority of those that have survived are safely locked away in climate-controlled vaults in libraries and museums. There are a few such autograph manuscripts – or “holographs” – still in private hands, and on the exceedingly infrequent occasions that they come to market, they tend to sell for fabulous sums.

For example.

A Single Page of Beethoven

On May 17, 2002, Sotheby’s in London auctioned off a single page removed from one of Beethoven’s sketchbooks. That page – which dates to approximately 1817 – contains what are his earliest known sketches for his Symphony No. 9, which received its premiere in May of 1824. The auction catalog described the page as being:

“one of the most important sketch-leaves of Beethoven ever to have been offered for the sale at auction.”

Sotheby’s estimated its value at between £150,000 and £200,000, or, given the exchange rate at the time, between $232,500 and $310,000. Well, two potential buyers got into a bidding war, and when the smoke cleared some five minutes later, an anonymous phone bidder had won with a bid of £1,326,650 or $2,056,307. With Sotheby’s premium added to the mix, that single page in Beethoven’s hand sold for approximately $2.5 million.

The head of the manuscripts department at Sotheby’s, one Dr. Stephen Roe, called the price:

“absolutely extraordinary. That is an incredible price, and it is about 10 times more than any Beethoven sketch leaf has ever gone for. We knew that it was going to do well but we had no idea that it was going to do that well!”

Smiles all around at Sotheby’s, no doubt!

But no smiles from us, as the anonymous buyer has – it would seem – forbade detailed images of the manuscript from appearing on the internet.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard in E-flat major, BWV 998, (circa 1735-1740)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard in E-flat major, BWV 998, (circa 1735-1740)

Likewise, there were smiles all around at Christie’s when a four-page autograph manuscript by Bach sold for £2,518,500 ($3,344,568) in London on July 13, 2016.  It remains the highest price ever paid for a Bach manuscript, an indication of just how rare Bach’s handwritten manuscripts are.  That’s because the vast majority of Bach’s surviving manuscripts are owned by the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Berlin.  According to Christie’s:

“No more than ten of Bach’s complete autograph manuscripts are thought to survive in private hands: the present manuscript is one of only three for instrumental compositions.”

Christie’s further indicated that this manuscript is:

“one of only three complete autographs to come to the market in the last 30 years, and the first since 1996. Fewer than twenty Bach manuscripts of any kind, including fragments and partially autograph or amended orchestral parts, have been offered for public sale since 1970: all were scores or parts for church cantatas. According to our research, no manuscript of any kind for a secular or instrumental work has appeared at auction since the present manuscript [was last sold] in 1968.”

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