Pedro Corrêa do Lago has been collecting for nearly half a century
In May 2016, the Rio de Janeiro-born collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago spotted a gem in a Sotheby’s auction in Paris. “There was this fantastic letter from Marcel Proust to his father,” he remembers, explaining that the writer hoped his missive would steer his education away from diplomacy, the clear paternal preference. “Proust wrote: ‘Tout autre chose que les lettres et la philosophie est pour moi du temps perdu.’ In other words: ‘Anything other than literature and philosophy, for me, is lost time.’ How do you like that? Writing ‘du temps perdu,’ already, at the age of eighteen?” he says. The year was 1893, and the French novelist would only begin writing his most celebrated work, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), in 1909, working on it until his death in 1922. Recognising its significance, Corrêa do Lago bought the letter.
The Brazilian is the world’s largest private collector of autograph letters, manuscripts and photographs. The son of a diplomat, he grew up shuttling between European and Latin American countries, absorbing their histories, cultures and languages – he speaks five fluently. He started collecting autographs aged eleven. A year later, he was using his father’s Who’s Who to write to people he admired, asking them to write back: many of them did. Soon he discovered there was a market for meaningful traces of famous people’s handwriting, and a Pandora’s box was opened. From 1986 until 2003 he worked as an antiquarian bookseller in São Paulo, which sustained his passion, as did his position as Sotheby’s representative there from 1987 to 2012. The author of more than 20 catalogues and books about Brazil-related art and the founder, along with his wife, Maria Beatriz Fonseca, of the art-focused Capivara Editora publishing house in 2001, Corrêa do Lago has also worked as a curator for the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as well as several Brazilian institutions.
Henri Matisse, autograph note signed with initials, to Albert Skira, Nice, 16 February 1949
Today, the 60-year-old collector – who lives in São Paulo and Rio – has become well versed in Proust’s life and his handwriting, of which he possesses many examples. He bought the first one when he was around twenty years old from legendary New York rare books dealer David Kirschenbaum for just $200.
Now, for the first time, the collector is showing part of his extraordinary collection of some 100,000 items in The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum. Although the early Proust letter is not on view, two other significant pieces in the writer’s hand are, along with some 140 manuscripts, musical compositions, inscribed photographs, drawings, sketches and other records. These bear the handwriting of 125 prominent figures including Mozart and Matisse, spanning history, art, science, music, literature and entertainment. Each of these fields has a dedicated section in the exhibition, designed by Daniela Thomas. She is a Brazilian set and exhibition designer who helped direct the 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony in Rio.
The earliest item, from 1153, is a vellum bull signed by four popes. The latest, from 2006, is a thumbprint signature by the late physicist Stephen Hawking. Several figures, Corrêa do Lago notes, have two or three items: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Marx, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Some clusters are especially fascinating: he picks out “a very rare photograph signed by the Romanov family, next to a Rasputin-signed photo, and then a Lenin-signed photo.” Corrêa do Lago’s excitement is palpable at the prospect that visitors might find the kind of connection with the endeavours of mankind he so enjoys.
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann), autograph manuscript draft of the opening passage, circa March-April 1913
Some five years in the making and curated by Declan Kiely (the director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library, but formerly at the Morgan) and Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s Drue Heinz Curator of Literary & Historical Manuscripts, the exhibition may, in the end, be a small representation of his holdings, but in spanning nine centuries and much of the globe, it is an accurate one. It is also a reflection of Corrêa do Lago himself – his thirst for knowledge, discoveries and acquisitions. As Nelson puts it: “All collectors are passionate, but I have never quite seen anything at the level of what Pedro communicates.”
This is a man who never stops, and never stops dreaming. “If I win the lottery, what will I buy?” he asks, laughing. “I would love a Galileo letter, and I still miss a good Luther letter.” He admits his collection is all-consuming. “When I say, jokingly, that I should be in a straightjacket, it’s really true.”
The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York from 1 June–16 September.