The point of anything deemed “collectible”—a baseball card, a stamp, an autograph—is that its value is based on set criteria dictated by the marketplace. Without consensus about what those values are, baseball cards are just laminated paper, and stamps are just, well, also laminated paper.

“It’s simple supply and demand,” says Judith Lowry, a partner at New York’s Argosy Book Store, which also deals in correspondence, autographs, and memorabilia. “If there are more people who want something than there are copies or letters, the price goes up.”

In the case of a treasure trove of letters, manuscripts, and diaries by author John Steinbeck about to come to auction, there’s an added calculus: topicality.

“There’s an autographed manuscript where he talks about America, and ethical conduct and public servants,” says Elyse Luray, a specialist at Heritage Auctions who organized the Oct. 24 sale. “And right now [in the U.S.] there’s talk of impeachment.” Steinbeck’s letters, she continues, even have echoes of the opioid crisis. “He goes to Europe and sees everyone taking sleeping pills, and here we are having issues with a different kind of pill.”

Luray says that relevance should make the lots easier to sell. “They give you an inside view into the things that John was experiencing, and they’re apropos of what’s going on today.”

Background and Prices
The collection belonged to Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine. When she died in 2003, “they took everything—sheets, wrapping paper—and put it all in storage,” Luray says. “There was also some stuff in a safety deposit box.”

Eventually, Elaine’s daughter and grandson managed to go through it all and contacted Heritage about a potential sale. “I can’t tell you how many people they showed [the material to] before me,” she says, “but I’ve been in the memorabilia business for many years, and I’d never heard of Steinbeck’s warmup journal. And it’s my bet that not many people knew of it either.”

The auction is online-only, and none of the lots carry estimates, just starting bids.

The “warmup journal,” which Steinbeck wrote in from 1946-47 “in the same way that a football player warms up before a game,” Luray says, is easily the most expensive, with a starting bid of $10,000. With the buyer’s premium and fees, that number goes up to $12,500.

The journal, which Steinbeck describes as “one of those interminable notebooks that serves no purpose but to warm me up and sometimes to cool me down,” includes about 100 pages of his handwriting. Aside from writing exercises, there’s a surprising amount of angst on the page.

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