The original cloth gilt boards of a copy offered by Lacy Scott & Knight (20% buyer’s premium) on March 23 showed a few defects and there was some darkening to the endpapers, but in the end it sold well.
Copies bearing an inscription as well as a signature can naturally make more, and in 2014 Bonhams sold for £44,000 one that Wilde inscribed as “A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness, Feb 99” for Major James Ormond Nelson.
When Wilde was first incarcerated at Reading Gaol following his 1895 trial for indecency, the then governor denied him all access to books, but Major Nelson, his replacement, proved far more understanding.
A later biographer, Richard Ellman, wrote that one of Nelson’s first acts was to go up to Wilde and say: “‘The Home Office has allowed you some books. Perhaps you would like to read this one. I have just been reading it myself.’ Wilde melted into tears.” Nelson also gave Wilde the writing materials on which, as C33, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
A dozen special copies of the 1899 Smithers edition of The Importance of Being Earnest were printed on vellum and that inscribed by Wilde to his lifelong friend and supporter Robbie Ross was in 2012 sold by Sotheby’s New York for $300,000 – then £187,500. Back in Sotheby’s London rooms three years later it made £160,000.
On December 13 last year, at Sotheby’s New York (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium), an eight-page Wilde letter not seen at auction for over 70 years was sold for $60,000 (£44,910).
Writing in 1882 to the actress Fanny Bernard-Beere, while on a lecture of America, Wilde touches on Mormons, miners and their antipathy towards Whistler, on Botticelli and other matters, but the focus here is entirely on the first mentioned group.
This illustrated passage in Wilde’s letter reads: “I have lectured to the Mormons: the Opera House at Salt Lake City is an enormous affair about the size of Covent Garden and holds with ease fourteen families. They sit like this and are very ugly. The president [John Taylor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], a nice old man, sat with five wives in the stage box.”
The president [John Taylor of the Church of Latter-say Saints], a nice old man, sat with five wives in the stage box