What I’ve learned: Thomas Venning, Head of Books and Manuscripts

Our London-based specialist on Bach, Shakespeare, Einstein — and the all-important difference between ‘signature’ and ‘autograph’


I never expected to end up in one of the very few jobs in the world where Latin was an essential skill. After studying Classics and English at Oxford University, I worked briefly for my parents. But being an organ builder wasn’t for me. I can’t be trusted with a hammer. 

Greater equality and diversity have changed Christie’s for the better. I applied for my first role at Christie’s in 1998 because the job title sounded fun. Back then, Christie’s felt like a gentleman’s club, with lots of dark wood everywhere. I went to a formal lunch and asked someone why they had only signed the visitor book with their surname. They responded, ‘That’s not my surname, it’s my title.’ It’s different now. 

The way to wind someone up in my field is by confusing the words signature and autograph. It’s like a red rag to a bull. If a letter by Stephen Hawking is described as ‘autograph’ it means he wrote it. If he also signed it, then it’s an ‘autograph letter signed’.

You shouldn’t wear gloves when handling books and manuscripts. They make you clumsy and pick up static. Any museum or library will tell you so. A few years ago, a specialist held up a manuscript at an auction without gloves and someone wrote in afterwards saying, ‘I can think of no quicker way of damaging a manuscript!’ Well, I can think of lots of quicker ways. Gloves are a red herring.

The time I spent reading as a child was great preparation for what I do now. Books were my absolute world. It was a slightly eccentric childhood by today’s standards, and I probably should have got out more.

Working at Christie’s can throw up magical moments. I grew up in Durham, in the northeast of England. We lived right next to the cathedral and my parents were organ builders. In 2016 Christie’s consigned a rare manuscript (below) by Bach  — the most important figure in organ music by a million miles — which sold for £2.5 million. My dad came to see it in my office and we listened to the music while turning the pages of Bach’s original score. It was very special.

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750). Autograph music manuscript, Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard in E flat major, BWV 998, n.d. [c.1735-1740].  Sold for £2,518,500 on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London

Autograph documents take you back to a moment in history. In 2012 we sold an autograph letter signed by Lord Nelson. Reading his thoughts as they came into being on paper was like time-travelling to his cabin on board HMS Victory  in the months before the battle of Trafalgar. It was an extraordinary feeling.

There are only four documents in the world with Shakespeare’s signature on them. My dream consignment would be to come across one of them — they are as close as you’ll ever get to a personal connection with one of the greatest and most mysterious figures in literary history. Unfortunately it's never going to happen — they are all owned by British public collections.

A huge part of my job is puzzle-solving. I can be deciphering the text of a medieval papal charter or trying to understand mathematical equations on a PhD thesis from the 1960s. Once I know what I am dealing with, my next question is, ‘How important is this?’

For instance, it could be a thank you note from Charles Dickens to someone we’ve never heard of, or it might be something he wrote to the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen discussing his first novel. The document’s importance lies in the connections it makes between the author and their life’s work.

We sell a lot of things that have never been auctioned before. Mostly because books and manuscripts are very easy to misplace. A client came to me once after finding a letter by Isaac Newton down the back of a drawer. On the flip side, a lot of collectors are reluctant to sell because it’s not as though they need to make room for more. You can always squeeze one extra book on a shelf.

An unusual part of my job is valuing archives. When we arrive at an estate the Old Masters team go straight to the drawing room, the silver team go down to the vaults and I’ll quite often end up in the stable block. 

I remember being on my own in the tower of a 14th-century English castle with no heating, and water leaking through the plastic sheets covering the windows. The family’s archive was stored in huge tin trunks on racks that went up to the ceiling. I thought to myself, ‘If I try to reach the ones at the top, I will die’. So I didn’t.

Einstein is a fashion icon. In 2016 we consigned his leather jacket (above) from his archive. I didn’t try it on out of respect, but it was bought by Levi Strauss & Co and they made a replica of it that I wear around my quiet patch of southwest London. Nobody has ever recognised it — yet.

Everyone who knew Oscar Wilde said he made an art form of conversation. He’d be my dream dinner party guest — I’d love to hear him talk. In 2001 we sold a transcript of 30 witness statements from his libel trial that went into graphic detail about his sex life. The document appeared from nowhere, and at first people presumed it couldn’t be genuine.

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The prices of books and manuscripts tend to remain steady. That said, top-quality material will always do well. Buying Einstein’s scientific letters ten years ago would have been a very smart thing to do.

People want the best masterpieces across all genres. When I started out, collectors tended to focus on a niche area, such as a specific author. I still have a collector who only wants documents about infectious diseases. These days, however, collectors are after anything by a big name if it’s of great importance. As with many fields, the collecting landscape is always changing.

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