Suffice It To Say Stephen Sondheim’s Auctioneer Did Not Understand Theatre Kids

On Tuesday, some collectibles from the personal homes of Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist, surprised even Sondheim die-hards when the rarities netted sky-high bids at a New York auction. Naturally, Sondheim fans took to items like a signed manuscript musical quotation from his hit Into the Woods, which, while estimated to sell for a max of $1,200, actually sold for a final price of $16,640. But, due to a viral tweet from artist and X user Sarah McGonagall, most of the buzz about the auction was diverted to two lots that each received $20,000 bids. No, they weren’t rare, signed manuscripts of Sweeney Todd, or Merrily We Roll Along memorabilia that might’ve received a popularity bump inspired by the Tony Awards bestowed upon the current Broadway revival just two nights earlier. Instead, the two lots that, per the auction house’s website, “drew loud gasps from the audience,” were two sets of books—thesauruses and dictionaries, to be exact.

To get the inside scoop on the auction that stunned a whole room of theater nerds, Slate spoke with one of the auctioneers who presided over the event: Peter Costanzo, a senior vice president at Doyle, the prominent New York–based auction house that hosted the auction. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: Where did the auction take place?

Peter Costanzo: This auction combined items from Mr. Sondheim’s Manhattan townhouse and his Roxbury, Connecticut, home, here at Doyle Galleries in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We had 454 items, and a four-day exhibition from Friday to Monday before the auction on Tuesday. We had well over 1,000 people come through the public exhibition over that time.

Could you describe the atmosphere of the room during the auction?

We had a full house. We had about maybe 200 bidders here. I would say the atmosphere was electric. The audience was largely made up of Mr. Sondheim’s die-hard fans, who had been following the auction closely for weeks, who had come to the exhibition and had really gotten to know all of the different items, and who were ready to bid voraciously for a keepsake of this hero of theirs.

Let’s talk about the tweet that brought us together to have this conversation. User Sarah McGonagall says: “So I attended the auction of Stephen Sondheim’s estate. There were two sets of his thesauruses expected to sell for ~$300 each, but each time the same girl immediately placed a $20,000 bid, and it was the first time I’ve ever seen a room full of theater kids go completely silent.First of all, just to fact-check, is this how you remember it going?

So, Mr. Sondheim, in interviews, had reported several times over the years that he employed thesauruses and dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries and slang dictionaries in his composing of lyrics for his musicals. He was known to really love wordplay games. There is a real link between his musicals, his thesauruses, his crossword interest, and his game collection. So while it might just seem like some unimportant thesauruses on his shelf, they were really anything but that. They were pretty central to his practice. During the auction, we came to Lot 278 first, which was estimated at $200 to $300. These were simple thesauruses from the 1940s. They did not bear annotations or special notation of any kind.

At the start of the auction, we were having very competitive bidding on every lot up to that point. The prices were coming out just phenomenal. So there was a customer on the phone who said something along the lines of “Just throw out $20,000,” and reported to our staff member to shout that out into the room. And boy did it work, because the first time it came up, it stunned the room and silenced the room. There were gasps and there were laughs, and it was really a wild experience.

“I’ve been here almost 15 years, and in all my years here, this has been, I would definitely say, the most gratifying auction I’ve ever been a part of.”

There were no bids beyond the $20,000 mark, and we hammered it down, sold. And we came to the next lot, No. 279—a group of dictionaries, thesauruses, and books on crossword puzzles. This was a larger lot. It had about 12 or 13 books in it and it had books that included crossword books and slang dictionaries and an interesting dictionary of fables. Lots of really interesting reference books. And the same thing happened again. We opened it up for a few hundred dollars, and the same bidder on the other end of the phone told our phone bidder to shout out $20,000. And again, it worked. Everybody gasped and nobody else bid, and we sold them both. It was quite a remarkable event in the auction, but it was not really out of keeping with the way that the sale was progressing, because we were achieving very high prices—just normally using a steady increment, not leaping ahead like that.

But having been in the auction business for a long time, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before. It’s not unusual for a bidder who really wants to corner the attention on a lot to jump ahead as a tactic to see if he could secure the thing.

Are you a theater fan?

Yes, I am a fan. I’ve seen many of Mr. Sondheim’s musicals. I really appreciate them. I think Mr. Sondheim, he wrote beautifully. His lyrics are absolutely amazing, and he’s that unusual person who was able to be a lyricist and a composer of the music, which is not so common. He was really a brilliant mind.

Have you done plenty of theater-related auctions?

I’ve sold a lot of theater-related items over the years. In fact, just today we had an auction called Stage and Screen, which sort of correlated with the Sondheim sale. Most of what we sell in those sales are scripts, memorabilia, autographed things, props, costumes.

I am wondering if this is the first time you’ve ever seen a room full of theater kids go completely silent, because I am a theater kid, and I’ve never seen it before.

I wouldn’t say you could hear a pin drop in the room, but you could definitely hear everyone gasp and intake air, and it was just a little bit of a sense of disbelief. But I have also been around a lot of rare book sales, and I would tell anyone to never underestimate the power of association copies of books. Mr. Sondheim was known to use these books, and his musicals are loved, therefore these thesauruses will be loved and cherished. We were seeing it throughout the entire auction. This was just the most glaring example. Similar to that, another collection that has been getting some attention online is Mr. Sondheim’s Blackwing pencils.

I was going to ask about those.

The really good vintage ones from the 1940s became unavailable at some point, and Mr.
Sondheim was lucky enough to secure a bit of a stock of them. There are many collectors of these pencils. It’s a bit of a cult following. Usually you’re not buying the pencils of a famous person who used them, but they’re hard to find, so they tend to command a lot of money on places like eBay. We generally don’t sell pencils in our auctions, but the opportunity to use and own the type of pencil that wrote the musicals that you love, again, just has a priceless nature to it for the right kind of fan.

His work was very focused on wordplay. If I’m just thinking about some of my favorite rhymes, there’s “putting thoughts of you aside” rhymed with “suicide” in “Could I Leave You” from Follies; “person’s personality is personable” with “matador coercin’ a bull” in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company; and, of course, “We’ve no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her” from the prologue to Into the Woods. It makes sense for a superfan to be interested in pencils and a collection of books that are clearly well used. If you had the finances, would you do it?

Well, I think the intellectual in me really does like the thesaurus lots, because they really speak to his working method, and it’s wonderful to get close to that. I think that’s really at the core of why people were so drawn to the auction. It was trying to get into the mind of this great talent. I think the item for me that really spoke leaps and bounds, though, was Mr. Sondheim’s first royalty check that he earned for his first published songs. That was something I thought was a very top-tier and unusual collectible, because most of the earliest recognition of artists like this don’t really survive. They’re highly scarce. A lot of people who get successful don’t even have those things, even if they get successful at a young age and keep all of their possessions.

I really like thinking about Mr. Sondheim’s salad days when he was at Williams College and he was writing his first musicals and publishing his first songs for the Cap & Bells, the college theater group. The talent he brought to that and the launching pad that made for him—the fact that he received that first check for 74 cents is just a wonderful amount when you think about what publishing songs would eventually bring him and later writers, especially in that ripe era of the Broadway musical.

What would you say are the rarest items that were in the collection?

I think if you really want to talk about the rarest items that were there, there were some early games and puzzles, which are really scarce things which are not easily found.

They’re collectors’ items in their own right, let alone being owned by Stephen Sondheim.

There was a lot of buzz for the complete set of promotional puzzles for his film The Last of Sheila, because they came in a box, and people would’ve put them together, and the boxes would’ve gotten separated from the puzzles. So those seem to be really rare. The 1985 Keith Haring puzzle for an invitation to the Party of Life, of course, is very ephemeral, and people would’ve put it together. Lot 39 was a vintage one-man band. That was a fun moment in the sale. It was just a funny novelty thing that he owned, and that sold for over $4,000.

I believe the highest price in the sale was Lot 86, the Fabergé billiards table. Fabergé is of course the Russian decorative arts maker known for eggs. Even though this was a very small box—it’s almost like a cigarette case—this is a very unusual form for Fabergé. They consider it Fabergé Furniture, as opposed to some of the other items. This is the type of item that Fabergé collectors just do not see, let alone have the opportunity to buy very often.[Sondheim] loved things that moved and opened and transformed. It all sort of played into his game mind. He loved movable furniture. He had very interesting Victorian chairs that opened up to form chaise lounges. This billiards table, the lid opened to reveal a box. It was a very unusual piece, and we had international bidding on that. It sold for over $70,000.

Is this the most successful auction that Doyle has had, financially? According to your site, the final sale total for the auction was over $1.5 million.

This is known as a “white-glove sale”: Every item that was put up for sale sold, which is pretty unusual for a sale with this many items; 450 items up, 450 items down. But we’ve certainly had auctions that have grossed more. I mean, we are sellers of very fine antique jewelry and paintings. Just last year, we sold a very important sapphire ring that Irving Berlin had gifted to his wife, and I believe that brought right around a million dollars, if not more. We’ve definitely sold individual items that have yielded more than a million and a half dollars.

But this was wildly successful in a few senses. The participation was some of the largest we’ve ever seen. In this day and age, especially during the pandemic and post-pandemic, participation in auctions is mostly done online and over the phone. Having 200 people here, it was absolutely heartwarming to us. In that sense, it was wildly successful. To put on the exhibition that we had, we had a reception on Friday night and we had a wonderful piano player singing Sondheim songs, and we had a singalong for about two hours here. Doyle has a very long history, and I’ve been here almost 15 years, and in all my years here, this has been, I would definitely say, the most gratifying auction I’ve ever been a part of.

Of all of the auctions in your years at Doyle, do you have a single most surprising sale? By that I mean something that you didn’t expect to be bid on for as much as it was.

Celebrity-oriented auctions are always a lot of fun, because they bring out a lot of fans and anything can happen in terms of the bidding. So I was very lucky to work on the estate of Elaine Kaufman, who owned Elaine’s restaurant, in 2011. Elaine’s was an Upper East Side staple. The surprise lot there, which was so much fun, was that we sold Table No. 1. We set up a table with a tablecloth, the plates and martini glasses, and some of Elaine’s stuff, and that brought, I want to say, $7,500 to $10,000. It was just for a restaurant table.

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