Harry S. Truman's homework fails to sell at auction

Saturday, December 14, 2002

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Officials at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library say they would love to offer a home for a notebook the late president used during his law school days.

Sotheby's of New York had expected the notebook to fetch $40,000 to $60,000 at an auction Friday. That was a bit steep for the library or for the library's nonprofit support group, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

But the auction house said the Truman notebook did not sell at the auction because it failed to reach the reserve price, which it did not disclose. The bidding stopped at $17,000.

"Our hope is the owner may approach the library and want to see it preserved here for researchers to use and enjoy," said Mark Beveridge, who cares for the museum's collection, documentation and records. "If it didn't sell, it would be a wonderful thing for them to consider donating to the Truman Presidential Museum and Library."

Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president in Sotheby's books and manuscripts department, said the auction house would hold the notebook for a brief period to see if there's any post-sale interest and look into arranging a private sale. If neither effort produces a sale, the notebook would be returned to the consigner, a Michigan collector who bought it from Sotheby's in 1979.

Unusual find

Kiffer said he hadn't spoken with the owner about the possibility of donating the notebook that Truman kept while taking night law classes in the 1920s. Truman never finished law school.

"To find any important relic or manuscript from so early in a politician's career is unusual," Kiffer said. "There is very little material of Truman's from the 1920s that comes to the market."

Truman wrote many letters and signed many autographs, making those items not so difficult to come by, Kiffer said.

"But to have a real working manuscript, something that was created as part of his daily routine, is almost unheard of," Kiffer said.

The small, personalized notebook, measuring perhaps 5 by 3 inches, appears to have been from the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Co. Truman apparently used the notebook while attending night classes at the Kansas City School of Law.

He had enrolled in the fall of 1923. His daughter, Margaret, was born the following February.

The notebook entries are dated from Nov. 20, 1924, through Jan. 29, 1925. At the beginning of that period, Truman had just been defeated in a run for re-election to the post of Jackson County eastern judge. He was elected to that position in 1922.

Also, he recently had turned 40 years old.

"You can actually sort of speculate about what his ambitions were at the time," Kiffer said. "This notebook was something given out by a life insurance company, and he made use of it."

"It shows him being careful. He had a baby. Maybe he was watching his pennies."

Traffic in Truman memorabilia remains steady. In March, Christie's auction house received $193,000 for the intemperate letter written in 1950 by then-President Truman to a music critic who had derided a singing performance by Truman's daughter.

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