Scribblings by Famous Authors Are Worth More Than Most People's Homes

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Plenty of now-famous authors barely eked out a living selling their words in their own time, but today their tossed-off grocery lists, doodles, and marginalia can fetch millions. As The Wall Street Journal's Barry Newman unpacks today, the market for such mildewed papers is booming

The subject of Newman's article is Ken Lopez, who professionally scavenges for caches of papers by authors like William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, and other famous literary figures, alive or dead. It's a small but lucrative market:

[Norman] Mailer sold his 1,062 boxes for $2.5 million in 2005 and died in 2007. In 2003, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sold 83 Watergate boxes, also to the [Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin], for $5 million. After 20 years of marketing for the likes of William S. Burroughs (dead) and Peter Matthiessen (alive), Mr. Lopez puts prices for interesting paper piles at $30,000 to $300,000.

Buyers fetishize tangible paper over digital loose-ends, of course. Poet Wendy Cope says 40,000 personal emails netted her only $50,000, while N. Scott Momaday got a cool half million for 100 boxes full of everything from shopping lists to manuscripts. Certain pieces from the archives that pass through Lopez's hands end up in his online store. Some of the current items for sale include a short letter written by William S. Burroughs to an Esquire associate editor (shown to the right), for which Lopez is asking $2,000. E.E. Cummings' ink sketch of a mountain, subtitled by some stream-of-consciousness ramblings, is worth $13,000. And an illustrated poem by Jorge Luis Borges (over to the left) can be yours for $10,000. Other archives are available wholesale. While papers by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Tuli Kupferberg have already been claimed, the literary archive of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs is still up for sale. Its contents include postcards, canceled checks, telegrams, a signed California driver's license, and more significant items like Burroughs' notes while reporting on World War II in the South Pacific. Lopez's asking price: $375,000.

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