T he collection was begun in Europe around 1930; the last items purchased some twenty or so years later. The collectors lived first in Germany, then Switzerland and eventually the United States, where the family settled permanently. The owners were connoisseurs, discerning, discreet, highly cultured and very private. Their names were known to a group of manuscript dealers and auctioneers of the distant past. Few are left who had the pleasure of knowing them personally. The collection was largely preserved by their heirs. Before 2017, twenty or so items were auctioned by Sotheby’s, including the great autograph manuscript of Schumann’s Second Symphony, sold in our London rooms on 1 December 1994.
The freshness of the material is paramount. With very few exceptions, not a single item has appeared on the market for at least seventy years. This means that there are great discoveries. Many letters having been unavailable for publication in the intervening years means that there are many new insights into the lives of Verdi, Brahms, Dvorák, Paganini and Rossini as well as Oscar Wilde, Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Einstein and Darwin, to name but a few.
The most exceptional grouping is again by Verdi, this time 14 letters to the impresario Lanari relating mostly to the composition and casting of Macbeth, the first of the composer’s three great adaptations of Shakespeare. Thirteen of these letters are unknown and unpublished. The text of the fourteenth is taken from Verdi’s transcript in the Copialettere. These letters provide a vivid impression of Verdi as an extraordinary dynamo of creative energy, an unstoppable force. Wagner is usually similarly characterised, but these letters show Verdi in a different league when negotiating with his impresario.
Also extraordinary is Rossini’s letter of introduction to the conductor Pietro Romani after the Frenchman won the Prix de Rome and journeyed to Italy in 1857. The letter was published in the 1890s only in French translation, then translated back into Italian by early editors of Rossini’s letters, without reference to the composer’s original, which differs from it in several details. Rossini admired Bizet greatly and the feeling was mutual. Similarly, the letters of Mendelssohn and Gainsborough were published from transcripts. Now the originals can be seen for the first time in many years. Letters of Gainsborough are of great rarity, only ten or so remaining in private hands. In this letter, dating from as early as 1763, Gainsborough describes his studio in Bath and gives details of his current portraits. There are similarly important letters of artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, Monet, Signac and Manet.
The collection is rich in the prime movers of the nineteenth and twentieth century: four major letters of Tolstoy, in English, French and Russian, comparing French and Russian approaches to art, invoking Dostoevsky and Turgenev; expressing his fears about censorship in Tsarist Russia and the difficulties of publishing controversial material. Karl Marx remits to an admirer his publications which led to the Communist Manifesto, some in collaboration with Friedrich Engels; Churchill discusses his first efforts to get into Parliament in 1900, effectively marking the end of his life as a journalist, soldier and adventurer and the beginning of his political career, which was to last a further sixty years. Einstein writes about his scientific work, supported by mathematical calculations relating to his work on Relativity. Charles Darwin deals at length with the critical reaction to his On the Origin of Species in several unpublished letters.