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Amy Gale
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“Literary Ladies Do Well at Auction,” AntiqueWeek (July 13, 2009), N5. In these uncertain times, with the banks near collapse and the stock market in retreat, the prudent investor may want to look into Thrale Fund. Hester Thrale Piozzi wrote many books during her long life (she was born in 1741 and died in 1821), but is remembered as a hostess, who attracted and retained a circle of philosophers, novelists, and poets.   She was one of the literary ladies collected by the late Paula Peyraud. Peyraud was an imaginative and comprehensive collector, who pieced together the overlapping social circles of Georgian England with books, manuscripts, and portraits. The collection was sold on May 6, at Bloomsbury Auctions in New York. Judging by the pricelist, Mrs. Thrale and her sister authoresses can more hold their own in today’s market. Of 483 lots 85% sold and the average hammer price was 114% of the estimate. The hammer total was $1,309,930. Among the highlights were the many lots associated with Thrale. Her eight-volume copy of the The Spectator (a later edition of the influential periodical published in the early 18th   century) was the afternoon’s showstopper. The final bid of $115,000 was more than triple the high estimate and reflected the importance of the many punchy and indiscreet comments she jotted in the margins. Likewise her portrait by Zoffany, which was knocked down at $48,000. The final bid fell a little short of the high estimate ($30,000-$50,000), but was many times higher than the $2,570 (buyer’s premium included) that was paid the last time it passed through a saleroom in the early 1980s.   Thrale’s friendship with the novelist Fanny Burney is documented in many letters. A chatty letter from Thrale to Burney takes a few swipes at their acquaintances and repeats the praise Thrale heard for Burney’s second novel, Cecilia ($11,000). Burney’s novels were appreciated by her contemporaries, though they have not held up well with modern readers.   Letters that refer to the novels tended to sell for more than the novels themselves.  The exception was Evelina, her first novel, which was published in 1778. The final bid for a first edition copy was $17,000.   The Peyraud collection was remarkable in its scope. Here were the half-remembered names from all those upper-division English lit classes.  Elizabeth Carter, for example, was a celebrated Greek scholar. Her translation of Epictetus went for $480 ($500-$800).  Another learned lady was Hannah More, whose reputation rests principally on her moral writings. Peyraud seems to have been more interested in her letters, which detail the interests and activities of a Georgian woman of letters.  While many of the earnest epistles failed to find any takers, a gushing account of the Duchess of Kingston’s trial for bigamy was a hot lot; the final bid ($2000) outstripped the estimate ($800-$1200). Both Carter and More frequented the salon of Lady Elizabeth Montagu, which was a popular destination for respectable literary and theater people.  One of the collection’s trophies was Montagu’s letter to the actor David Garrick. After a flowery preamble in which she speaks of her “pride,” “honor,” and “felicity,” she comes to the point: “I never invite idiots to my house.”  The bald statement is famously quoted in the Dictionary of National Biography, which contributed to the strong bidding.  The final bid ($1900) was more than double the estimate. The promise of a bore-free evening was a great social lure and ambitious hostesses competed for the attendance of wits and raconteurs.  Garrick was always in demand.   He was represented in the sale by two portraits; one was bought in and the other (a miniature watercolor) sold for $1200. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish dramatist, could also be counted on to enliven a dinner party. A letter he wrote trying to make sense of his chaotic finances failed to sell ($500-$800). The bidding was stronger for the group lot of 14 volumes of light literature from his library ($900). The biggest social lion was Samuel Johnson. Most of his letters in the Peyraud collection reflect his intimacy with the Thrale family, who were good at managing the great man’s moods and caprices. The prices ranged from $950 to a room-silencing $19,000 for a jokey and discursive letter from Johnson to Hester Thrale.  It is a measure of Peyraud’s thoroughness that she fleshed out her holdings with mementos of the minor personages.   Lady Diana Beauclerk, who was a friend to Garrick and Johnson, is one such forgotten figure.  Her portrait by an unknown English artist failed to sell ($700-$1000).  By contrast, a letter she sent to Naples, thanking the legendary ambassador Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma for their hospitality to her son, squeaked past the estimate to be knocked down for $550 ($300-$500). Not all lots were about cultivated ladies with well-regulated minds. The fast set was represented, too.  Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was a celebrated beauty, unlucky gambler, and neglected wife. Her best friend was her husband’s mistress and the three lived and traveled together. The rivals were paired—minus the duke—in a group lot of two miniature portraits after Gainsborough; the final bid was a passable $8,000 ($10,000-$15,000).  Portraits of Lady Bessborough, who was Georgiana’s younger sister, were also for sale. One lot comprised two miniature watercolors on ivory by Anne Mee ($6,000). In one, Lady Bessborough is shown with her daughter Caroline Lamb, whose father was most certainly not Lord Bessborough.  These things seemed to run in the family because Caroline went on to cut a notorious figure in Regency society, which is really saying something. Her affair with Lord Byron was the basis for Glenarvon, the three-volume novel she published in 1816.  One of the two copies in the Peyraud collection was from the library of Harriot Mellon, the actress who married the Duke of St. Albans ($800).  Her second novel, Graham Hamilton, has an inscription on the flyleaf “from the author” to her husband.  Although the inscription is not her hand—she may have been busy with other things—the novel sold for $1,600. Moving in the same circles was Lady Blessington.  She and her husband together with the Comte d’Orsay formed another of those itinerant threesomes that intrigued and scandalized society. Her book about Byron, Conversations with Lord Byron, was scooped into a group lot of 12 volumes related to the Blessington ménage ($1,000).  A keepsake album that Lady Blessington compiled in the 1820s with the sketches, portraits, and bons mots of their motley and raffish friends was a big winner ($13,000). “The sale went extraordinarily well, especially in today’s market” says Bloomsbury rare book specialist Richard Austin.  He credits the combination of fresh-to-market inventory and conservative estimates. Surprise was another factor. Paula Peyraud was a private woman, who discreetly accumulated hundreds of historic pieces. Many were known to exist, thanks to reproductions and scholarly citations, but had been lost from view for many years. Their reappearance on the market was, in some cases, short lived. Institutional bidding was strong, Austin reports.  There’s no mystery, though, to Peyraud’s ability to assemble such an important collection.  Family money helped, but what really counted, says Austin, was her knowledge of the subject. The prices do not include the buyer’s premium unless otherwise stated.