History for sale

Alex Cohen Jun 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If it came from almost anybody else’s basement, it would just be another pile of papers. But when it’s original manuscripts from Martin Luther King it’s history. And real money, too. Sotheby’s will be auctioning an assortment of Dr. King’s papers next week. It’s not the biggest collection. Thought it might be the most valuable. The estimate is somewhere between $15 million and $30 million. But for all that money the winning bidder or bidders still won’t get everything. Here’s Alex Cohen.

ALEX COHEN: On December 10th, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo, Norway.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice . . .”

A draft of that speech written in cursive with ballpoint pen on yellow legal paper is one of more than 7,000 items that will be auctioned next week. Like the briefcase Dr. King had with him when he was assassinated, a box filled with nearly 100 sermons and a draft of King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Elizabeth Muller is with Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department.

ELIZABETH MULLER: This has to be most certainly the most important non-presidential archive in the history of the United States. This is the working documents that chronicle a period of our country’s history that changed the entire complexion of our nation.

Part of the auction’s proceeds will go to the King Center in Atlanta, but the bulk will go to Dr. King’s four children.

This isn’t the first time the collection’s been up for sale. In the late 1990s, Coretta Scott King tried to sell it to the Library of Congress and several other institutions. One of those was the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The center’s director, Don Carleton, says the university tried to make an offer:

DAN CARLETON: We said, you know, we can raise about $3 million for this collection. We thought that was a fair price and of course that went nowhere.

Back then, Mrs. King was asking for $20 million, a price the University of Texas and the other potential bidders found too high. But, Carleton adds, the market for such archives has evolved in recent years. For example, manuscripts by James Joyce fetched more than $11 million just two years ago.

Carleton says the King collection would be a tremendous educational asset to any university. But there’s a reason, he adds, why schools may not see this as a wise investment. The winning bidder will not get copyright control of the collection — that remains with the King family.

CARLETON: And if you look at the catalog, the Sotheby’s catalog, there are three or four pages it seems like of very fine print restrictions and limitations on the use of this collection.

Carelton says personally he’d be worried about making a multimillion dollar purchase of something that could only be used in certain ways.

CARLETON: Justified or not, the King family does have a reputation as being very difficult in terms of dealing with financial issues, particularly literary rights and control over Dr. King’s words.

Carleton can’t say whether the University of Texas will bid this time around. The city of Atlanta, where Dr. King was born, has expressed a keen interest in purchasing the collection.

Of course a wealthy individual could win the auction, and that has some people worried the collection might be kept from public view. That seems unlikely, says Clayborne Carson.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I can’t imagine anyone acquiring them without wanting to show off what they’ve acquired.

Carson is director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He says he’s fairly certain the collection will wind up someplace where the public will have some sort of access to it.

CARSON: Obviously I’m concerned about what happens to the physical papers but to me the crucial things are the wonderful visionary ideas that are expressed.

Those ideas, Carson adds, have long been available for free. The Sotheby’s auction begins at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 30th, in New York.

I’m Alex Cohen for Marketplace.

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