By KATE MURPHY
Flowers, trinkets, borrowed sweaters and other reminders of our romantic past may get tossed out. But love letters, for those lucky enough to receive them, are different. They are more likely tucked in a wallet or safeguarded in a box under the bed.
Increasingly rare in an age when affection is more often expressed with a kissy-face emoji, actual, hold-in-your-hands love letters are special even to people who weren’t the intended recipients. Indeed, collectors tend to value love letters written by famous figures more than other kinds of correspondence. Which is why the auction this week of love letters by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to the British diplomat David Ormsby Gore has made headlines. The price of love in this instance? An estimated $125,000 to $187,000.
“When you have a letter destined for only one very special person, you know it’s going to be intimate, and there may be thoughts and feelings that the writer might not have revealed to anybody else,” said Devon Eastland, the director of fine books and manuscripts at Skinner, a Boston auction house, which in May will offer a collection of 40 love letters by the artist Andrew Wyeth to his girlfriend, Alice Moore. The collection is expected to fetch $80,000 to $120,000.
According to historical manuscript dealers and appraisers, the hammer prices, or winning bids, for love letters in recent years tend to correlate with the fame of the writer, rarity and the condition of the document. But most of all they depend on the revelatory nature of the content. If in real estate it’s all about location, for love letters it’s all about heart.
Instructive is a letter from Abraham Lincoln to his first fiancée, Mary Owens, which sold for $700,000 in 2002, then the highest price ever paid for a Lincoln letter and still the highest paid for a love letter. The well-preserved document is one of only three known that he sent to Owens and reveals the future president as ambivalent and insecure, seeking reassurance that she really does want to marry him despite his meager income: “I know I should be much happier with you than the way I am, provided I saw no signs of discontent in you.” Compare that with a newsier letter he wrote to her earlier in their relationship. Lacking emotional depth — “I have been sick ever since my arrival here” — and the paper being a bit more discolored, it went for $110,000 last September.
Data provided by American Book Prices Current, which tracks rare book and manuscript auction results, show that, after the Lincoln letter, the highest prices paid for individual love letters are predominantly for those written by military men. Take the one from Napoleon Bonaparte to Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1795 or 1796, during the three-month affair that preceded their marriage. The letter, which was sold in 2007 for $467,958, follows a quarrel. Napoleon admits to being cross but declares his love: “I send you three kisses — one on your heart, one on your mouth and one on your eyes.”
A letter written in 1800 by the British naval hero Horatio Nelson to Emma Hamilton describing an erotic dream — “I kissed you fervently and we enjoy’d the height of love” — sold for $175,050. And then there’s the love letter Winston Churchill wrote in 1899 to Pamela Plowden, who has been called the first great love of his life, which sold for $113,782. In it, he wrote, “Marry me — and I will conquer the world and lay it at your feet.” By contrast, a draft of a letter from Churchill to Stalin on the “Polish troubles” went for $30,165.
“What draws people to letters in general as things to buy is that feeling of making a really direct connection with a historical figure,” said Thomas Venning, director of books and manuscripts at Christie’s in London. “You’ve got a piece of paper, it was a blank piece of paper when that person put it in front of them, and they filled it with a part of themselves.” In the case of grand military figures’ love letters, he said, the allure is perhaps more intense because “you see the unexpected vulnerability at the heart of them.” (This may be one reason letters from famous women tend to carry lower price tags: When women talk of love, it doesn’t defy our stereotypes.)
Tenderness hidden behind a tough guy facade may explain why an immaculately handwritten love letter from the slugger Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe went for far more ($62,500) than any of the several typewritten love letters to her from the playwright Arthur Miller ($1,024 to $9,728). Miller had an easier time expressing his feelings, but his prolixity comes off, perhaps, as more annoying than enchanting. For context, one of Ms. Monroe’s brassieres went for $16,000.
But sometimes peering into someone’s heart is not a selling point, as with 44 love letters written by Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who created Snoopy, that failed to sell at auction in 2012. At the time the letters were written in the 1970s, Schulz was middle-aged, married and engaged in what reads as a rather puerile pursuit of a woman more than 20 years his junior.
“When you have the unvarnished moment of two people corresponding in an intimate way, it could definitely cross into ‘ick’ territory,” Ms. Eastland said. “Schulz fans might find those love letters a little repugnant.”
But then, one person’s “ick!” might be another person’s “awesome!” An explicit letter written by the rapper Tupac Shakur to a female admirer while he was in jail in 1995, which mentions bondage and lollipops, sold this year for an unexpectedly high $28,000.
Love letters sold in a bundle that give a sense of the arc of a relationship are also highly prized, particularly if they mention the writer’s work or creative process. An example is a collection of 53 letters between Albert Einstein and his wife, Mileva Maric, with references to his scientific endeavors, that sold for $400,000. Ten letters the Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger wrote in 1969 to his girlfriend, Marsha Hunt, sold for $234,500. One letter incorporated lyrics for the song “Monkey Man” with three additional lines.
The buyer of the Jagger-Hunt series was Anne-Marie Springer of Nyon, Switzerland, a prominent collector of love letters. She owns some 2,000, including letters written by Frédéric Chopin, Winston Churchill, James Joyce, Elvis Presley, Napoleon and Frida Kahlo.
She said what appeals to her is “these so-called superstars are just as shy, emotional and endearing as we are when it comes to affairs of the heart.” Perhaps money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you the solace that no one, not even the most prominent figures in history, is immune to the humility and heartbreak of love. It blesses and afflicts us all.