Lots of love: the most romantic love letters ever sold at Christie’s
If you’re lacking inspiration this Valentine’s Day, take notes from ten of the most moving love letters in the Christie’s archives
The love letter is an art form open to all: love does not discriminate, every human being has felt it, and all you need is a pen and paper. Written by cultural icons ranging from Napoleon I to Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe to Oscar Wilde, these famous billets-doux sold at Christie’s are a testament to the form’s magic.
‘Reading such an intimate communication and being given a glimpse into someone else’s love story can’t help but pique our curiosity and evoke a visceral response,’ says Heather Weintraub, a specialist in Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s. ‘These examples we’ve seen at auction are a reminder of the love letter’s singular ability to capture hearts and imaginations.’
Leonard Cohen to Marianne Ihlen
Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. The pair shared a long and chaotic romance that inspired a catalogue of Cohen songs — like So Long Marianne, Bird on the Wire, and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye — and left behind a legacy of over 50 love letters.
Cohen admits that although it’s been a year since they last saw each other, he is unable to move on — and is departing Hydra the next day to see her in Norway. He writes, ‘I must see again what happens to us when we are together, perhaps it will be nothing, perhaps everything. Anyhow, we shall see and speak and touch and if it is nothing we shall say so. If it is nothing I’ll get on with my life and you with yours and all we’ll keep of one another will be a few months of sun and a long journey north. At least we will be able to say goodbye, something we have never managed.’
He wouldn’t manage that goodbye until the very end of their lives, when he heard that she was dying and wrote her a final letter in 2016. It ended, ‘You know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.’
Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio
American icons Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were only married for nine months, and their relationship was long rumoured in the media to be publicity-driven, but documents like this 1954 letter show another side of the story. On the reverse of a dry cleaning receipt, Monroe writes, ‘Dear Joe, I know I was wrong! I acted the way I did and said the things I did because I was hurt — not because I meant them — and it was stupid of me to be hurt because actually there wasn't enough reason — in fact no reason at all. Please accept my apology and don't, don't, don't, don't be angry with your baby — she loves you. Lovingly, your wife (for life) Mrs. J.P. DiMaggio.’
Just as poignant as the words is the physical state of the letter: DiMaggio kept it in his wallet for the rest of his life, and it is so worn down that it has separated into four sections. As one of the most significant letters from their relationship, it soared above auction estimates, selling for $450,000 in 2020.
Oscar Wilde to Philip M. Griffiths
In December 1885 Oscar Wilde sent this letter to Philip M. Griffiths, which reads, ‘I have sent a photograph of myself for you to the care of Mr. MacKay, which I hope you will like, and, in return for it, you are to send me one of yourself, which I will keep as a memory of a charming meeting, and golden hours passed together. You have a nature made to love all beautiful things, and I hope we shall see each other soon. Your friend Oscar Wilde.’
Little is known about the exact nature of Wilde and Griffiths's relationship. Still the warm, intimate tone of this unpublished letter is imbued with the delight and intensity that would later characterise Wilde's best-known, effervescent letters.
Igor Stravinsky to Vera de Bosset Sudeikina
This 1921 letter from the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky to his lover and future wife Vera de Bosset Sudeikina reflects the early stages of their love affair — they had met that year through Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.
Terrified that she might stay with her husband, the painter Sergey Yurievich Sudeikin, Stravinsky writes: ‘Perhaps I shouldn't bother you with this, but when you are in love as deeply and as strongly as I am, it is unthinkable not to mention something which so tortuously affects that love. Verochka, my beloved, tell me that this “coming to terms” won't be a sign that your feelings for me are weakening... I live only by the smallest of reminiscences, the pain of our separation, and the partial satisfaction of your letters.’
Diaghilev’s secretary, Boris Kochno, acted as the go-between for the pair and likely kept this letter for reasons of discretion.
Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love
Kurt Cobain wrote this letter to Courtney Love whilst hallucinating on LSD in a Sheffield hotel room, during the band’s 1991 tour. He writes, ‘I really do care but I’m not very convincing’ — the words that follow carry the signature rawness of Nirvana's lyrics.
The letter was likely written on 28 November 1991 — the night of Nirvana’s infamous Top of the Pops appearance, when they were asked to perform to a backing track and trashed instruments in protest. He ends it, ‘We watched Top of the Pops tonight. F***** brilliant, Love Kurd’, followed by a heart doodle.
When the hotel secretary who faxed the letter asked Cobain what to do with the original, he told her she could keep it. The letter is a relic of one of the most passionate relationships in rock and roll history and a significant night in Nirvana’s history.
Winston Churchill to Pamela Plowden
When Churchill met Pamela Plowden — daughter of Sir Chichele-Plowden, at that time the British Resident in Hyderabad — in 1896, he fell in love at first sight. He immediately wrote a letter to his mother, describing her as ‘the most beautiful girl I have ever seen’.
A lifetime of correspondence between the pair ensued. This letter from 1898 is notable for Churchill’s intimate and emotional tone, in contrast to his public writing. In response to her accusation that he was ‘incapable of affection’ it ends with an outburst of passion: ‘I love one above all others. And I shall be constant ... My love is deep and strong. Nothing will ever change it. I might it is true divide it. But the greatest part would remain true — will remain true till death.’
Although Plowden, later Countess of Lytton, rejected Churchill’s marriage proposal the following year, their friendship continued for the rest of his life.
Miles Davis to Beverly Bentley
Miles Davis and actress Beverly Bentley dated for several years in the late 1950s. This collection of three 1959 autograph letters from the jazz great (signed ‘Lady Bentley’s lover’, ‘Your man’, and ‘Miles loves Bentley Davis’) conveys the intensity of his devotion.
In one, he writes that he is unable to ‘think, sleep, I play a song for you every night’. Some of the content is so graphic that Bentley redacted parts in black felt marker, but the words ‘I dream about you’, ‘I need you honey’, bracket the censored lines.
Napoleon I to Josephine de Beauharnais
Napoleon I and Josephine de Beauharnais had a famously tempestuous relationship — as this letter following their first lovers’ quarrel attests. Madame de Beauharnais noticed Napoleon’s interest in her wealth when he made enquiries of her notary about her family's estates in the West Indies. He responds, ‘So you thought I didn’t love you for you!!! For who then? Ha! Madame, have you thought about it? How could such a low thought have been conceived by such a pure soul?’ But adoration for his future consort overrides his frustration, and he adds, ‘I give you three kisses, one on your heart, one on your mouth, and one on your eyes.’
This is one of only three letters addressed by Napoleon to Josephine when she was still Madame de Beauharnais, between the beginning of their affair in December 1795 and their marriage on 9 March 1796. It brims with the French emperor’s idiosyncratic misspellings, misnomers, and the terms of endearment that he used throughout his early letters to Josephine, addressing her as ‘incomparable’ and ‘mio dolce amor’.
Edith Piaf to Yves Montand
Edith Piaf and Yves Montand met on February 18, 1944, at the old Moulin Rouge in Paris. A few months later they began a short-lived, yet passionate affair. The beloved French chanteuse took the Italian-born actor and singer under her wing, introducing him to key industry figures and convincing him to include romance songs in his repertoire.
In this letter from October 1945, Piaf signs off on their relationship, writing ‘Forget me quickly and remain the great man that you are. Despite all your faults you are an extraordinary and marvelous person. I’m signing for the last time, Pupuce’. They would continue to see each other until the beginning of 1946, working together in Marcel Blistène’s film Étoile sans lumière, before truly putting an end to their affair.
Montand later declared, ‘All the men she loved she left. She was never left. For me, it was one of the most beautiful years of my life and I was terribly hurt.’
Viscount Horatio Nelson to Emma Hamilton
Viscount Horatio Nelson, a decisive figure in the British naval victories of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, is widely regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. His affair with Emma Hamilton, from 1799 to his death in 1805, scandalized London society. When his wife Fanny asked him to stop seeing his mistress, he moved out, refusing to ever see Fanny again. After moving in with Emma and her husband, and telling Emma that she was his wife ‘in my eyes and in the face of heaven’, he returned to active service in January 1801.
Whilst they were apart she gave birth to their daughter Horatia, and they kept in touch via letters. This first one after his departure shows the depth of his longing. He writes ‘My Dearest friend parting from such a friend is literally tearing ones [sic] own flesh but the remembrance will keep up our spirits till we meet, my affection is if possible stronger than ever for you and I trust it will keep encreasing [sic] as long as we both live’. He refers to their daughter as the fictitious persona ‘Mrs Thomson’ — at the time her birth was still a secret.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week