In the 1980s, two of the greatest book collections in history were auctioned at astronomical values.
In the history of book collecting, the story of Haven O’More is one of the most curious, enigmatic and intriguing stories. Haven O’More wanted to be known in history as the greatest book collector in the world. And build up a collection of rare books he did, assiduously and relentlessly. His story is so strange that Nicholas Bisbanes in his pioneering work “A Gentle Madness – Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and an Eternal Passion for Books” has devoted an entire chapter to him. Bisbanes’s chapter title “To Have and to Have No More” is based on an anagram of Haven O’More – “Have No More” but it sums up the story of this bizarre personality.
In the 1980s, two of the greatest book collections in history were auctioned at astronomical values. These were the Estelle Doheny collection between the years 1987-89 for $37.4 million and the Bradley Martin Collection in 1989-90 for $35.7 million. These were impressive figures with rare books like the Gutenberg Bible, the Shakespeare Folio and Audubon’s classic The Birds of America going under the hammer. Yet, it was a third auction that of the relatively unknown Garden Ltd in 1989 for $16.2 million, less than half the figures of the earlier auctions, that made the headlines.
The collection of Garden Ltd was put together by Haven O’More and later auctioned by Sotheby’s, the arch-rival of Christies. The collection was estimated to be worth $9 million, and Sotheby’s to preempt Christie’s paid $4.5 million in advance to secure the auction rights. For, the collection contained many a gem both seen and unseen. Haven O’More had built up the collection and he had been buying relentlessly and sometimes anonymously both in England and across the Pond, in the United States. But not with his own money!
Arthur Houghton , the principal benefactor of the Houghton Library at Harvard, chose to sell his collection of books in England. At this auction, O’More bidding through a representative, created a stir when he paid premium prices for 22 magnificent items. He was now noticed. In 1976, he had bought the 1543 presentation copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium for $150,000 but that hardly caused a ripple.
People now began to take both Garden Ltd and O’More seriously. Garden Limited was a partnership incorporated in Boston between two individuals, Haven O’More and Michael Davis, a wealthy private investor. Later, it transpired that Davis was the sole investor and had put in $13 million in the partnership where he was the “sole limited partner” and O’More the “sole general partner”. So, O’More was basically using Davis’ money to make his acquisitions and go down in history as the greatest book collector in the world.
His obsession to acquire rare books gives us an insight into the man. Stephen Massey, a fourth generation bookseller, was retained by Christie’s to auction some rare books. As it was customary to permit customers to pre-examine the books before the auction and during business hours, Massey recalls that the staff was disturbed by a very agitated customer who arrived late and demanded to see a particular book. O’More’s tone was haughty and imperious bordering on “Do you know who I am?”. When Massey asked him to come back later with an appointment, O’More mellowed down. Massey did show him the book. It was none other than the Gutenberg Bible a superb two-volume set printed by the master in Mainz in the 1450s.
In the event, O’More was the under-bidder on the Bible at the auction eventually losing to the American bookseller Warren Howell who bid $2.2 million on behalf of a German institute. O’More also claimed to be a poet, an architect and a philosopher. O’More continued with a fascination for anagrams and for Indian mysticism though there is no record of his ever visiting India. His publishing imprint was SADEV which is the Vedas spelled backwards. He claimed expertise in hatha yoga and his morning was never complete without a two-hour yogic exercise. He continued to claim to be in his 40s even when he was well past the age!
Michael Davis who had signed an “irrevocable power of attorney” giving O’More absolute control over his money had to go to court for justice. It was the court that ordered the auction of the rare books under the Garden Ltd collection. The books had been stored in two bank vaults in Boston. In the end, $16.2 million was realized through the auction. How the proceeds were paid to the respective parties is not known. And Haven O’More continues to remain an enigma in the international book trade till this day!
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books