Letters Written by Charles Darwin, JRR Tolkien and Claude Monet Head to Auction

If past auctions of similarly significant folios are any indication, the sale of letters, manuscripts and illustrations could attract several high-profile bidders.

“I have been plagued by business, troubles, illness, and journeys, or I should have written long before,” J.R.R Tolkien wrote in a 1954 letter to an early reviewer of The Lord of the Rings. That letter, along with an auction’s worth of significant historical letters and manuscripts, is heading to the block at Christie’s next month.

Four old documents spread out
Lecture notes on lunar and solar eclipses from astronomer Edmond Halley. Courtesy Christie's

According to the auction house, the collected works in the Alphabet of Genius sale represents one of the most important groupings of signed letters, manuscripts and illustrations to go up for auction. The 365 lots offer a glimpse into the private realms of some of the most famous people in literature, science, psychology, art and music and will be sold in a series of online auctions beginning on Dec. 1 and ending on Dec. 14 or Dec. 15, depending on lot number.

“Not for years has there been such an opportunity to acquire letters and manuscripts in the hands of our most famous authors, artists, scientists, musicians and thinkers,” said Sophie Hopkins, a Christie’s specialist in manuscript and archives, in a statement.

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In addition to Tolkien’s letter, autograph and manuscript collectors can bid on an inventory written by Charles Dickens categorizing the library and contents of his London home, developmental drawings by Antoine de Saint-Exupery for The Little Prince and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh’s pals Christopher Robin and Eeyore.

Pencil drawing of young boy and a donkey
Christopher Robin and Eeyore as drawn by E.H. Shepard. Courtesy Christie's

Private correspondence between prominent historical painters are also part of the auction, including a letter from French artist Claude Monet discussing Manet’s Olympia, and a Paul Gauguin letter addressed to the artist Camille Pissarro. A document sent to Michelangelo from his protege Antoni Mini discussing the painter’s life in Lyons has a high estimate of £50,000 ($62,000). The auction will also include a series of musical manuscripts from Mozart, Gustav Mahler and George Frideric Handel.

Collectors looking for Einstein manuscripts can bid on the scientist’s writings on the problem of Unified Field Theory, a single explanation for all fundamental forces in nature. Other scientific lots include Thomas Edison’s lab notebook in which he recorded experiments for the development of an alkaline storage battery and several pieces of writing by the astronomer Edmond Halley focused on lunar and solar eclipses. An explanation of “the origin of evil,” in the form of a letter from Charles Darwin to a fellow scientist, is also up for sale, along with a letter from Sigmund Freud to another psychologist in which he proposes using optimism as a framework for psychotherapy.

Who are the billionaire collectors of historical documents?

The world record for the sale of a book, manuscript, historical document or printed text was set in 2021 when hedge fund manager Ken Griffin acquired a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution for $43.2 million. The Citadel chief is in wealthy company—in 1994, Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates shelled out $30.8 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s 72-page Codex Leicester.

Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, is another frequent bidder in historical folio sales. He purchased the typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for $2.4 million in 2001 and  spent the same amount in 2018 for the original manuscript of the 1938 Alcoholics Anonymous book.

But few have amassed as significant a collection as David Rubenstein, co-founder of private equity firm The Carlyle Group (CG). He owns a rare copy of the Magna Carta purchased for $21.3 million, an Abraham Lincoln-signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation purchased for $2 million and a 1976 printing of The Pennsylvania Evening Post purchased for more than $600,000. Much of his collection, which also includes a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Revolutionary War-era map of the U.S., are regularly loaned to museums and cultural institutions.

Letters Written by Charles Darwin, JRR Tolkien and Claude Monet Head to Auction