You know that the world is moving very fast when an everyday object from your not-so-distant youth is hailed as a valuable relic.
For a reminder of how swiftly obsolescence can create value after first destroying it, just consider the recent sale at a swish auction house of a battered old Olivetti manual typewriter for a cool $254,500.
Of course, as anyone who followed the media spree that preceded the sale is aware, this was not just any old Olivetti with a history of cranking out term papers, duty letters and job applications. This little blue Lettera 32 manual belonged for roughly half a century to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy.
Nor was the sale a simple transaction. Orchestrating enough high-toned hoopla to attract a critical mass of deep-pocketed bidders who would be blind to the object’s scruffiness and dazzled by its pedigree required the skills of a nimble networker with an impresario’s talent for creating excitement.
Enter Glenn Horowitz, a rare book dealer who owns two shops in East Hampton, another in New York, and is a leader in the rarefied market of literary archives. He has arranged for scholarly institutions to pay handsome sums for the papers of Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, among others.
In business since 1979, Mr. Horowitz, who spoke recently by phone of the amazing typewriter transaction, is a lively presence on the cultural/social scene in New York and the Hamptons—he has a house in Sag Harbor. Credited with infusing a welcome dose of glamour into the once dull business of dealing in rare books and papers, he was hailed as an “alchemist,” by Rachel Donadio in a 2007 New York Times Book Review profile for his uncanny ability to put market forces and literary reputations together and come up with gold.
A fast talker with a tendency to move the conversation his way and run with it, Mr. Horowitz gave a lively account of the tale of the typewriter. Answers to questions relating to anything else, he suggested, could be found in the Times profile, which gives a full accounting of his rise as a player.
“Cormac and I have been friends for a number of years,” Mr. Horowitz began.
So, in 2007, when Mr. McCarthy decided the time was ripe to sell his archives, he naturally turned to the person he knew. Well established by then as an enormously popular and admired writer—Mr. McCarthy’s novels include “No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Meridian,” “The Road,” and “All the Pretty Horses,” among others—he had also received just about every important literary award ever given.
“He asked if I would sell his literary papers,” said Mr. Horowitz, continuing his story.
The deal Mr. Horowitz struck with Texas State University in San Marcos “generated a great deal of revenue,” the author was “delighted,” and what Mr. Horowitz terms his “talking friendship” with the notoriously taciturn author was solidified.
Then, late last summer, Mr. Horowitz recalled, during one of their conversations Mr. McCarthy told him that his trusted old typewriter, purchased in a Tennessee pawnshop for $50, and on which he had tapped out his oeuvre ever since, had impressed a friend as so pitiful that he had offered the author a replacement. (Word has it that the purchase price for the lightly used Olivetti replacement was $11, shipping costs $19.95.)
When news of the replacement got out, Mr. McCarthy’s friends at the Santa Fe Institute, a research center where he spends much of his time among convivial people with no particular literary leanings, asked the author “if he would have any objections to perhaps selling the typewriter to benefit the institute,” Mr. Horowitz related. The author wondered, in turn, if Mr. Horowitz might be interested in adding it to his collection of literary memorabilia.
But Mr. Horowitz had a better idea. With his friend’s agreement, he set out to bring the typewriter and its unique history—some five million words batted out on its keys by the writer who is widely considered one of America’s best—“to a more public forum.”
“Let me speak to the auction houses,” Mr. Horowitz recalled having suggested. And because Mr. McCarthy has found such a congenial refuge in the institute and was eager to help it however he might, he agreed.
“So I went to my friends at Christie’s,” said Mr. Horowitz, “and they jumped at the idea.” They would just need a letter from the author authenticating that the typewriter was his and had put all those words onto all of those pages.
The next number Mr. Horowitz plucked from his mighty Rolodex was that of The New York Times’s Patricia Cohen, though not before warning the author that the press might be interested in talking to him about the typewriter.
When he informed Mr. McCarthy that the Times was indeed eager to print a story, “He was suitably pleased and impressed that I had pulled it off,” Mr. Horowitz asserted. Not surprisingly, he was less pleased by the prospect of talking with the Times writer.