An extraordinarily rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe's first collection of poems -- the most valuable book in American literary history -- has been discovered in a New Hampshire book barn. Titled "Tamerlane and Other Poems," it is the 12th known copy.
The discoverer paid $15 for the book, which he found in a bin of pamphlets on farm implements and fertilizers. Sotheby's, which will auction the book on June 7, estimates it could fetch as much as $300,000.
"Our experts have examined it really thoroughly and compared it with other known copies, and there seems to be no question whatsoever about its authenticity," said David Redden, the auction house's senior vice president and director of its books and manuscripts division.
Redden said it was the most important book discovery since the last copy of "Tamerlane" was found, in 1954. That copy brought $123,000 at auction in 1974. "Tamerlane" was printed in Boston in 1827. Its authorship on the title page is attributed only to "a Bostonian."
The finder, who is remaining anonymous, told the Associated Press, "I knew I had found something great, a piece of Americana . . . I knew it was valuable but never dreamed that it would mean this much money.
"Actually, I didn't handle it real carefully when I first got it," the man said. "I thumbed through it . . . I never read anything by Poe in my life. I really don't know too much about books."
The man contacted the Boston office of Sotheby's, which shipped the book to New York by armored car. "Initially when we heard about it, we were extremely skeptical," said Redden. "Nevertheless, we asked them to send it to us, and my goodness, it was absolutely right."
One of the first things the auction house did was check the whereabouts of all known copies of "Tamerlane." A copy had been stolen from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1974, but this was not the same one.
The importance of "Tamerlane" lies in the fact that it is Poe's first printed work. As many as several hundred copies may have been initially printed, but most of these have been destroyed.
The preface to the 40-page book states that "the greater part of the Poems which compose this little volume, were written in the year 1821-2, when the author had not completed his 14th year. They were of course not intended for publication; why they are now published concerns no one but himself." Poe was 18 at the time.
In his only known reference to the work, Poe said it was suppressed "through circumstances of a private nature."
Redden noted that there were books that would be more valuable than "Tamerlane."
"A 'Bay Psalm Book,' the first book printed in America, would be worth a great deal more," he said. "But for a straight literary work, I can't think of something that will be worth more than this."
This copy is in remarkably good condition, although the paper covers are stained. "It looks its age, but it's not in any way seriously damaged," said Redden. "It's in very nice shape. Its sojourn in the bin with the fertilizer pamphlets hasn't hurt it at all."