Part of the joy of placing a bid during an auction is knowing that you could possibly own something not only of great monetary value, but of great personal value to a person who previously owned it. The curatorial eye is sometimes worth as much as the object. That much was made evident during last year’s auction of Impressionist art collection of Texas oilman and philanthropist Edwin Lochridge Cox at Christie’s. Raking in $332m, the sale proved that Impressionist art, which in recent years had taken a back seat to young, up-and-coming figurative painters, could still make a dent in the market—if it was chosen by the right person.
Bonhams this month will hold a single-owner online sale from an equally discerning eye and even sharper mind, though there may not be any six- or seven-figure lots. From 19-27 January the auction house will take bids on volumes from the personal library of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late US Supreme Court Justice. A remarkable lawyer and jurist, she weighed in on some of the most important Supreme Court cases in recent history and towards the end of her life became a cultural figurehead for progressive ideals. Reproductive freedom, increased access to education, marriage equality, gender equality, civil rights—the cases she helped adjudicate changed lives across the country. But she was, like us, a normal person.
One who loved to read.
Ginsburg wasn’t a “collector”. Hers was a reading library, one meant to be perused and flipped through, one that gave both entertainment and bestowed knowledge. There are legal titles from her earliest days in law school including her heavily annotated copy of the 1957-58 Harvard Law Review, the year she was a member (estimate: $2,500-$3,500). Also featured are her personal copies of the Reports on the 1978 Equal Rights Amendment Extension hearings before the House and Senate subcommittees (estimate, $600-$900) and a presentation copy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s They Often Are Half Obscure: The Rights of the Individual and the Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes that O’Conner gave to her just days before her nomination to the Supreme Court and from which she quoted in her acceptance speech (estimate, $800-$1,200).
But it’s not all business. There is a wealth of books on history, Judaism and literature included in the sale, which features over 1,000 volumes, including copies J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a well-worn copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H Lawrence and a number of books by Nabokov, with whom she studied European Literature at Cornell University. There are also feminist literary classics like Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, works by Susan Sontag and Gloria Steinem, as well as books authored by her fellow justices on the Supreme Court, including Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch and her dear friend Antonin Scalia.
“A person’s library can give us a sense of who the individual is and how she came to be,” says Catherine Williamson, head of Bonhams book department. “Justice Ginsburg’s library is no different, as it records her evolution from student (and voracious reader) to lawyer and law professor, to judge and finally, Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The books Justice Ginsburg chose to keep on her own bookshelf showcase the rich inner and intellectual life of one of the most influential women in recent American history.”