A rare edition of "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's epic 1939 tale of Depression-era poverty, sold Sunday for $47,800, a price that may set a record for a Steinbeck novel sold at auction.
Some experts were surprised at the high price paid for the first edition from the collection of Steinbeck's sister that catalyzed spirited bidding at an auction held jointly in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The size of the final bid may reflect the writer's increasing popularity as well as rising prices for rare copies of 20th century American literature, the experts said.
Steinbeck himself, who eschewed materialism, might well think that price was absurd, said Dr. Phil Ralls, editor of the Steinbeck Collectors Gazette.
"He would just be sort of amazed and amused," Ralls said Sunday afternoon.
For instance, Steinbeck thought it "outrageous" when his book "The Red Pony" was released in a special edition in the 1930s that sold for $10, a high price in those days, Ralls said.
The auction featured first-edition copies of Steinbeck works owned by his sister, Elizabeth Steinbeck Ainsworth, who died in 1992. Several drew particular attention from collectors because they contained the novelist's inscriptions to her, making them much-prized "association copies."
The Steinbeck family chose to sell the books to finance renovation of a Pacific Grove, Calif., bungalow where Steinbeck wrote some of his best-known books and where his sister later lived, said Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts for Bonhams & Butterfields, the auction house that handled the sale.
The collection sold for more than $200,000 to a number of buyers, whose names were not announced. That amount was well above the auction house's low estimate of $130,000, Williamson said.
A copy of "Of Mice and Men" sold for $7,768, "East of Eden" for $8,365 and "In Dubious Battle" for $11,353.
Five of the Steinbeck titles were bought by Jim Dourgarian, a Bay Area antiquarian bookseller who specializes in Steinbeck's work.
His purchases included "Cup of Gold," the Nobel laureate's first novel, which he called a relative bargain at $21,510.
"The fact that this was probably the last close family copy that is not in an institution made it highly desirable," Dourgarian said Sunday night. He said it also is valuable because Steinbeck inscribed it, and it is wrapped in a brightly colored dust jacket showing a buccaneer.
But the high-priced, inscribed copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" created the biggest stir. Based on a search of databases, Bonhams believes the $47,800 price is the world record for an at-auction sale for a Steinbeck novel, Williamson said.
"I think Steinbeck is having kind of an upward swing in popularity," Ralls said.
Yet his popularity still lags behind that of his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, and Sunday's auction saw an inscribed first edition of "The Sun Also Rises" sell for $77,000. Rare copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald also have a huge following, Williamson said, adding, "$100,000 today won't even get you a 'Great Gatsby' in a dust jacket."
Steinbeck was close to his sister, and the dedication of one of his novels reads, "To Beth, my sister, whose light burns clear." A copy of "Tortilla Flat" sold Sunday carries this handwritten inscription: "For my dear sister Elizabeth, without whom I should never have known of the people about whom this book is written. John Steinbeck." In the high-priced copy of "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck wrote, "For Beth with Love John" on the front endpaper.
About 80 prospective book buyers were on hand at the auction house in San Francisco, and another 10 to 15 people showed up in Los Angeles, where the event was simulcast.
California's preeminent novelist was not part of the East Coast publishing establishment, and did not initially enjoy the academic or popular acclaim of some of his contemporaries.
He often wrote about hardscrabble lives, as he did in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Grapes of Wrath," which chronicles the travels of migrant workers from the Dust Bowl to California during the 1930s. Their stories had less allure than novels by the likes of Fitzgerald, whose "Gatsby" glitters with high-society tales.
In recent years, however, Steinbeck's work has drawn increasing attention. His profile got a boost when Oprah Winfrey's Book Club added "East of Eden," Ralls said.