9 Weird Literary Relics People Spent Serious Money On
$15,000 for an X-ray of Ernest Hemingway’s foot? Don’t mind if I do!
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The original 1926 sketch of the Hundred Acre Wood by Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard is going up for auction in London this July, and could sell for more than £150,000 (or about $200,000). According to a Sotheby’s employee quoted by the Guardian, the map is “probably the most famous map in English Literature.” (While I love Winnie-the-Pooh as much as the next child raised on Disney reproductions of the British bear empire, I find that statement a little disappointing — and one I disagree with. But I digress.)
Old books don’t sell as well as old art. And somebody’s got to keep the lights on. Luckily, estates can pad their pockets with earnings from every other relic of the author’s life. Here, we’ve collected a pile of weird literary paraphernalia (i.e. not books), that sold for lots of money at auction — everything from locks of hair to used toilets. (In some cases we converted pounds to dollars.) It’s easy to judge the people who think to even sell these things that have nothing to do with the literary works that make our beloved authors immortal. But it might be more productive to wonder if we, the fans, confront the larger question here: have we really come to terms with the Death of the Author?
Sylvia Plath’s Wallet— $11,674
No money inside, just lots of ID cards — for the Boston Public Library, the Poetry Society of America — as well as a photo of Plath with her mother and brother near a Christmas tree. (Would Plath’s wallet be filled with half-used coffee punch cards, or would she be more scrupulous about these things? I wonder.) The value-add is the fact that the ID cards were obviously “signed” by Sylvia Plath. Among the collection of Plath’s paraphernalia recently sold at auction: her fishing rod, her typewriter (which sold for more than Jack Kerouac’s), her annotated library, her drawings, her watches, and lots of her clothing. And while we all knew Sylvia Plath’s writing was worth more than Ted Hughes’s (I even hate to make the comparison), it’s satisfying to see how the worth of her stuff backs that up. (Ah, capitalism.) According to The New York Times, Plath’s property outsold Ted Hughes’s property by more than double, earning a total of $551,862 by the end of the auction.
J.D. Salinger’s toilet — eBay auction starting at $1,000,000
When J.D. Salinger died in 2010, his house in Cornish, New Hampshire was purchased and promptly mined for insights about Salinger’s reclusive lifestyle. What was he doing in there all that time? According to the couple who bought the house, he was writing a lot on the toilet. “Who knows how many of [his] stories were thought up and written while Salinger sat on this throne!” the couple wrote on their eBay listing. Though the toilet was made in 1962, after most of Salinger’s work was published, the toilet lived in Salinger’s home for many years, “used” and “unclean.” Unclear how much the toilet ultimately sold for.
An unnamed bidder purchased this letter in the spring of 2016 — which means they bought it before the election. Harper Lee sent the letter to her friend Doris Leopard in 1990. In it, she writes:
“The last set of Visitors departed today: the worst punishment God can devise for this sinner is to make her spirit reside eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.”
Truman Capote’s ashes — $44,000
That’s right. Some weirdo bought the snuffed out remains of Mr. Capote. For a lot of money. But the truth of the matter is, those ashes didn’t come straight from the fire. The ashes, housed in a Japanese wooden box, were formerly owned by Joanne Carson, wife of the Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. She said holding on to the ashes of her dear friend Mr. Capote brought her “great comfort.” Fine enough, but it gets weirder. Along with Capote’s ashes, the clothes he was wearing at the time of his death were also sold, as well as two of his prescription bottles — the clothes for $6,400 and the pills for a whopping $9,280. Now, I’m doing some quick deduction here, but does that mean Ms. Carson found great comfort in holding onto his death shroud and expired pills, too?
Charles Dickens’s Dog Collar — $11,590
Charles Dickens, according to the auction website, was a proper Victorian in the sense that he liked dogs. The collar is large, and rules out the fantasy of Dickens frolicking down the street with a small Pomeranian. Could he resist the dog, begging for some mo’ supper?
Charles Dickens’ Toothpick — $9,150
Dickens fans must be pretty devoted—and pretty rich—to have two big-ticket items make it to the list. No humbug, really. According to The Washington Post, the gold and ivory toothpick with a “retractable mechanism” was sold “by heirs to the Barnes & Noble family” at the auction house, Bonhams. The toothpick was estimated to sell between $3,000 and $5,000, but the unidentified bidder must have really wanted the gross-ass relic. God bless us, everyone.
A whole beach that looks at a lighthouse that might have inspired Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ — $106,342
The 76-acre plot of land on the Cornish coastland was the subject of a wild bidding war, with international bids from the US and even Russia driving up the final bid to a number well beyond the estimated value of the property. The land can’t be developed or used for much — and the new owner can’t even stop people from using the property — but from the Upton Towans beach, you can see the lighthouse on Godrevy Island, which many believe is the inspiration for the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel. According to the auctioneer quoted in the Guardian, the property is “simply a ‘trophy’ piece that someone could take pleasure in looking at and say ‘I own that.’”
A locket that might contain Jane Austen’s hair — $6,382.50
While it hasn’t been proven that the hair is really Jane Austen’s, the “in memoriam” locket, which is made by taking strands of the deceased person’s hair and weaving them into the image of a weeping willow tree, might match the only known lock of Austen’s hair. And it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of this locket.
An X-Ray of Ernest Hemingway’s Foot — $15,000
The X-rays of Ernest Hemingway’s foot show evidence of the injuries he incurred on the Italian front in 1918, which he would later go on to write about in A Farewell to Arms. Weirdly enough, these medical beauties are still up for grabs, but hold off on buying them just yet, as investment values may wane when it’s “revealed” (i.e. people accept) that Hemingway was an overrated misogynist. (Gasp! Did I write that?)