Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Rarity and interest

News of the failure of a letter by Charles Darwin to sell at its minimum bid last month had me shaking my head in disbelief at the overly optimistic minimum bid. The letter was described as "rare". I am not sure what that means. Did Darwin engage in mass mailings with a stamped signature? Surely any signed autograph letter from Darwin would be unique.The unique is actually quite common. There are over seven billion unique individuals in the world.

What is interesting, though, is going to be more valuable than what is not and interest, when applied to market value, has a lot to do with how many people would find a thing interesting. I imagine that a letter from Darwin ordering a dozen pairs of socks from a shop would sell for very little more than a clipped signature.

The letter in question was to an associate, but if it was to an associate to whom he had never written before or afterwards, and thus rare in that sense, it would fetch considerably less than one of a hundred letters written to a very close associate who was also a personal friend. Auction results prove that personal content letters to relatives also do very well.

The record price for a Darwin letter was for one that contained only one sentence: "I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God." No surprise there: the subject of Darwin and religious belief is controversial; controversy sells. "Let my sins be scarlet, if it means my words are read"

People's ideas about what is important news is also highly subjective: Even as a numismatist, I still chuckle over an article title I read about fifty years ago: Yet another Heraclius die variety. Whoa! Stop the presses!

Special interests are so called because they apply to a rather small segment of society. A blog such as this one which deals with a number of different interests becomes a lesson in humility: according to the Google Blogger stats, the number of clicks on the most popular page about my discovery of the seal of Alexander the Great is currently at 1,495 even though it is the number one result for a Google search for "the seal of Alexander the Great", and the most popular page about an important new example of British early Celtic art is only sitting at 275 link clicks, yet a page about my dog has got 6,925 clicks and also gets a number one listing in a number of Google search phrases. If you just want to be a best-selling author, then write a cookbook.

You can get a few good ideas about what interests Darwin letter buyers by reading this page and its associated links in the Darwin Correspondence Project. Apparently, some sellers and auction lot appraisers have not.

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