Bonhams Hoped to Pull in $60,000 From an Auction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Library. The Sale Made $2.4 Million

Every single lot in the auction sold above its high estimate.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

An auction of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s library sold for roughly 3,800 times its presale estimate at Bonhams last night, drawing more bidders than any other online event in the auction house’s history.

The white-glove sale, an eight-day event that netted $2.4 million (including buyers’ premiums), exploded Bonhams’s low presale estimate of $60,000. What’s more, every single lot sold above its high estimate.

“I was very surprised at the results, although the response from the very beginning was universally positive,” Catherine Williamson, the director of Bonhams’s fine books and manuscripts department, told Artnet News. “If the sale had done a quarter of its total, I would have counted it a fantastic success.”  

More than 160 books and other pieces of ephemera from Ginsburg’s private collection were featured in the sale, which painted a picture of Ginsburg’s career, from her days as a student to those on the Supreme Court, according to the auction house.

Leading the way as the auction’s top item was Ginsburg’s annotated copy of the 1957–58 Harvard Law Review, which sold for $100,000, obliterating a pre-sale estimate of $2,500 to $3,500. 

The collected opinions of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Bonhams.

The collected opinions of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Other notable pieces in the auction included Ginsburg’s personal edition of her collected writings and speeches, My Own Words, which sold for $81,562 (against an estimate of $1,000 to $2,000); an inscribed copy of Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, which went for $52,800 ($300 to 500); and an edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved with a handwritten note from the author, which brought in $31,500  ($300 to $500).

Ginsburg’s status as a liberal icon was one reason for the event’s runaway success; another was Bonhams’s surprisingly low estimates, which were based on normal book prices, and not those of historic paraphernalia.

“There really wasn’t an established market for Ginsburg before the sale, and the family was agreeable to sell at no reserve, so we priced things quite low to encourage the maximum number of bidders to participate,” Williamson said.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s annotated copy of the 1957-58 <i>Harvard Law Review</i>. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s annotated copy of the 1957–58 Harvard Law Review. Courtesy of Bonhams.

The strategy worked.

More than 1,000 potential buyers registered for the auction, and the majority of the bidders were U.S.-based. Roughly 40 percent were under the age of 40—an encouraging deviation from the older crowds typically drawn to library sales.

The sale also boasted “great participation from female buyers,” Williamson said, adding that the event “felt like a watershed moment for collecting women’s history.”

“This may be one of those sales that we keep looking back to in future years.”

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