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The Collections of James S Copley

The newspaper chief and bibliophile

James S Copley was born in 1916, but was orphaned too early for him to remember his parents who were victims of the flu epidemic of 1918. Instead he bears the family name of his adoptive parents: Colonel Ira C Copley and his wife, who took him in at the age of four.

In 1928, Ira Copley bought The San Diego Union-Tribune, the paper, established in 1895, which refers to itself at 'the oldest business in San Diego County'. His adoptive son graduated from Yale in 1939 and followed his father into journalism.

Perhaps having a military father influenced the younger Copley's politics, which he referred to as "unabashedly conservative, Republican and pro-American".  The Tribune, which James Copley took over following Ira's death in 1943, puts down a standard for right wing views to this day.

The paper headed a family of newspapers which Copley managed until his death in 1973.

Copley and his wife Helen were well known for their philanthropy in the San Diego area, giving financial assistance to many cultural projects, some of which now bear their names.

These projects include: a YMCA facility, the Copley Library at the University of San Diego, Copley Symphony Hall, the Copley Centre at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation and the Copley Auditorium at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Certainly Copley was exceptionally interested in writing and print far beyond the limits of a newspaper. Through the 1960s and until his death he set about creating a grand library of rare texts - first manuscripts, then first editions and other collectible books.

The library contains over 2,000 pieces, and it would almost certainly be unmatchable for any private collector who tried now, given the rarity of the pieces.  In accordance with his politics, Copley's collection has a strong emphasis on Americana, especially the early days of the American Revolution.

There are key papers relating to Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, and a wealth of information relating to America's first three Presidents: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

There is even an example of the signature of Button Gwinnett of Georgia. The name means little outside America, but to collectors of American autograph collectors it is the Holy Grail: Gwinnett, as we've noted before, is the hardest signature to come by of all those who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Button Gwinnett manuscript
Button Gwinnett manuscript (est $700,000)

The document Copley possessed is arguably the finest available which will ever be available to a private collector, being a clear signature signed barely over a week later on July 12, 1776.

This, or perhaps a rare surviving example of a broadside Declaration of Independence, is probably the highlight of the collection. (Those interested in US Presidential autographs will be interested to know that rare George Washington and Abraham Lincoln autographs are on the market now.)

Later Americana includes a letter from Abraham Lincoln instructing General McClellan to either attack Richmond or come back to defend Washington during the Civil War, and an archive of letters sent by General Eisenhower to his wife from the battlefields of Europe in WWII.

(Copley might also have been interested in this letter from General Patton.)

Copley's interests ranged beyond the merely historical, however. He was a well-read man with interests in literature, science and music.

Writers who are well-represented in the library include Emily Dickinson, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, T S Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman and James Joyce.

The real strength of this part of the collection however is in a wealth of valuable documents relating to one Samuel Longhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain. In particular, his unpublished manuscript A Family Sketch gives an intimate portrait of Clemens's early home life.

The collection's comparatively small, but still impressive collection of scientific documents includes pieces from Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. There is also memorabilia relating to inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

In a series of auctions carried out by Sotheby's starting on April 14 and continuing through 2010, the collection is expected to bring around $15m.

 

www.paulfrasercollectibles.com

Images: San Diego Historical Society (James Copley) and Sotheby's (Button Gwinnett manuscript)


Last updated: 7 April 2010