The last time I saw Burt Britton it must have been more than 20 years ago. He simply disappeared. I’m not sure why. He told me, as I gather he told others, that if I ever wanted to contact him I could dial a special phone number, which he spelled out for me as MEL OTT, the name of the great baseball player.
Burt was a baseball fan, so that made sense. It didn’t occur to me until I dialed the number, unsuccessfully of course, that it was missing a numeral. For several years in the 1990s Burt sent me mysterious postcards. They came from New Jersey, but there was no return address.
I mention all this because the other day Burt turned up in The New York Times. The article, Portrait of the Artist: The Burt Britton Collection, said his fabled archive of writers’ self-portraits was being sold at Bloomsbury Auctions on West 48th Street.
Great, I thought. I’ll go, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch him there. Of course he didn’t show up. But I stayed for the auction.
According to my notes, 68 lots sold — out of a total of 213.
There were many surprises. Some self-portraits that I thought would sell, either for their artistic quality or for the eminence of their authors, didn’t — like the drawings by Tomi Ungerer, or Frank Gehry, or Jorge Luis Borges — even at prices well below the pre-auction estimates. In fact, with very few exceptions, the portraits that did sell went for considerably less than their estimates.
Nearly half of the lots — 29 in all — were purchased by Lansing Moore, the director of The Dongan Collection. He told me he represented a group of buyers eager “to capture a piece of New York social history.” Not to mention its literary history.
“I’m surprised at the lack of bidding,” Moore said. “Anyone who knows New York should have known these were wonderful pieces. At these prices, it was a missed opportunity.” He attributed the poor sales to a prevailing mood rather than to a poor economy. “It’s the psychology of not buying,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
The buyers Moore represents, whom he declined to identify, are eager to keep their part of the collection together, he said, “and we will be displaying it in the future.” His purchases included self-portraits by Edward Gorey ($1,400); Maurice Sendak ($2,800); Edward Abbey ($1,900); David Levine ($300); Saul Bellow ($2,200); Brassai ($1,400); Italo Calvino ($1,000); Truman Capote ($1,800); E.L. Doctorow ($300); John McPhee ($700); Joyce Carol Oates ($1,400); Gloria Steinem ($850); Tom Wolfe ($2,800); Arthur Miller ($1,500); and Herbie Hancock ($1,000). Unsold lots are still for sale. Moore, who spent more than $18,000, said he may not be finished buying.
By my unconfirmed count, total sales came to $102,495. The most expensive item on offer, largely due to its rarity, was the self-portrait by Philip Guston. It went unsold. There were no takers at less than half the price of the $20,000-$30,000 pre-auction estimate.
Here were the top 10 sales: David Hockney ($16,000);
Richard Avedon ($5,000) (see correction below); John Updike ($4,200); Ralph Ellison ($3,800); Kay Thompson et al. ($3,500); Anthony Burgess et al. ($3,200); Cormac McCarthy ($3,000); Red Grooms ($2,800); Tom Wolfe ($2,800); Maurice Sendak ($2,800).
And here’s something peculiar. My self-portrait found a buyer. I suppose I should mention it was part of lot 132 with 26 other self-portraits by the likes of James Laughlin, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Korda, and Barney Rossett. Somebody actually paid $500. Which means we went for $18.50 each. Uh, call it an opportunity taken.
Correction: The Avedon self-portrait did not sell. (It’s pre-auction estimate was $10,000-$15,000.)
Postscript: The Borges self-portrait, which had gone unsold, has since found a buyer. It was purchased for $5,000. (Pre-auction estimate: $6,000-$8,000.) Ditto for the Robert Motherwell self-portrait. (Pre-auction estimate: $10,000-$15,000.) Finally, for anyone interested in Burt, it’s worth reading Howard Kissel’s column about him. I hadn’t seen it until after my posting.