Philip Roth was the star attraction, by words alone.
Annotated copies of the novels Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral brought in more than $130,000 (U.S.) Tuesday night at a PEN American Center benefit auction hosted by Christie's. PEN raised $1-million overall, a major boost for the literary and human-rights organization, which officials say has an annual budget of around $4-million. Other popular items included annotated editions of Don DeLillo's post-Second World War epic Underworld, which had a winning bid of $57,000, and Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of municipal builder Robert Moses, The Power Broker, purchased for $26,000.
"It was a great night for literature. People keep saying the book is dead, but that clearly isn't true," Caro said afterward, adding that he had been nervous enough about the appeal of The Power Broker to delay his arrival until bidding for it was over.
The actual bids Tuesday brought in just under $920,000, but a PEN supporter, whom the organization declined to identify, kicked in enough to bring the total to $1-million.
The auction was called "First Editions/Second Thoughts," for which writers and visual artists reflected upon previous works and added notes and illustrations. The 75 offerings ranged from an old Woody Allen stage and film comedy, Play It Again, Sam, to Gillian Flynn's million-selling thriller Gone Girl. Roth, who has announced his retirement from both fiction writing and public speeches, was not in attendance. But his American Pastoral, a Pulitzer-winner released in 1997, was easily the most popular work, selling for $80,000.
Many of the bidders were PEN officials, collectors or professional book dealers. Rick Gekoski, a London rare-books dealer, snapped up Gone Girl, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and others. "It went very well. It was very reasonable," he said later.
The tastes of the room often had little to do with the fame of the writer or the popularity of the book. The debut poetry collection of Paul Muldoon, Knowing My Place, sold for $13,000, more than the combined top bids for Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. An early James Salter novel, The Hunters, was purchased for $8,000. Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling The Tipping Point went for $3,500. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping had a final bid of $24,000, Allen's Play It Again, Sam just $4,000, perhaps because Allen himself dismissed it in his notes as a "junky play."
Some contributors became so absorbed by the PEN project that they kept adding and revising annotations right up to auction time. Playwright Tony Kushner had already donated a copy of his celebrated Angels in America, and threw in marked-up portions of the shooting script for Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg film. Kushner's works sold for $32,000.
Yoko Ono's Acorn, a collection of instructions in verse form, was purchased for $1,300, the bargain of the night.