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Looking for the Right Words

Times Staff Writer

For 20 years, actor George D. Wallace kept three pieces of paper folded in an envelope tucked inside his desk. He had used the notes for his role as Mack in “Pipe Dream,” a 1955 Broadway musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein based on John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday.”

Over the weekend, those old notes, which were written by Steinbeck and described how Wallace should play the role, were on display with a hefty price tag at the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house in West Hollywood. Estimated value: $8,000 to $12,000.

Steinbeck wrote about Mack: “He was a hustler more for the fun of it than for any other reason. He was a drunk and when drunk was completely undependable.”

Wallace’s wife, actress Jane A. Johnston, said she decided to put the papers up for auction when her husband died last July in Los Angeles from complications after a hip injury. Johnston said she was concerned for her own finances and the time had come to sell a family treasure.

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“Anyway,” she said, “I decided it would be better for me to sell them than to have somebody come through and sell it when I was gone.”

The Steinbeck notes, written in pencil on yellow legal-size paper, are among the 450 letters, photographs, books and other written documents regarded by print and manuscript collectors as collectible treasures. The Tuesday auction includes an 1833 textbook on gastric juices, a letter from Joseph Stalin to his mother and American Civil War diaries.

“There are some pieces in here that I would be willing to pay 10 times the asking amount for,” said George Hollingsworth, a New York manuscripts dealer, who flew to Los Angeles to preview the items Sunday.

Hollingsworth spent hours examining a photo album of a sailor dating to the 1860s. He pulled pictures from the album and flipped them over in search of handwritten notes.

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“See this?” he asked, squinting at some numbers scribbled next to the faces in one picture. He then flipped the picture over to reveal a list of their corresponding names and said, “That makes the entire album more valuable, maybe thousands of dollars more.”

He said that book and manuscript collectors are no longer satisfied with once sought-after autographs of historical figures. They’re looking for full letters and books that “tell a story.”

One of the auction’s signed photographs is that of John Wilkes Booth, estimated in value at $10,000 to $15,000.

Booth was a well-known actor when he signed the photo and was often called “the handsomest man in America.” But if he had not been the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, his photo would be worth little more than $20, Hollingsworth said.

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One of the most valuable pieces in the sale is an 1850 San Francisco City Directory that Catherine Williamson, an auction director, dubbed “the Holy Grail” of western Americana collectibles.

Valued at $80,000 to $120,000, it is believed to be the city’s first directory, listing the names of 3,208 early residents.

“It’s not a very pretty piece,” Williamson said, “but it’s one true rarity of San Francisco history.”

Dana Linett, a Colonial-era collector with a penchant for historical currency, found the directory interesting.

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But that’s not the reason he drove from San Diego for the preview. He had his eye on 1850s Gold Rush currency, including four early California checks for $50, payable in coin or gold dust. They are now worth an estimated $500 total.

Linett’s fascination with old currency began when he was 8 years old. As his friends collected sports cards and comic books, Linett collected buffalo nickels and Indian head pennies.

“I thought it was fun,” he said.

In college, he sold his childhood collection and moved onto his broader Colonial-era collection. When he married, he began dragging his wife to auctions with him.

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Barbara Linett said she enjoys accompanying him, but she wouldn’t dare begin a collection of her own.

“The rule is there’s room for just one collector in the family,” she said.

“It can take over. It’s almost like a disease.”


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