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Rimbaud for sale

Arthur Rimbaud was born on 20 Oct 1854 and died in 1891 at the age of only 37. Readers of this blog will be familiar with his many and sometimes unexpected influences on the arts and culture. However, intense interest in the poet’s trail-blazing and adventurous life has also been reflected in the prices paid for any books, manuscripts and artefacts plausibly associated with his short life. Several important lots, including a recently rediscovered letter and sketch depicting Rimbaud in London, are being auctioned at Christie’s in Paris on 3 Nov 2020. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not always the manuscripts and books that attract the most interest…

Image courtesy of Christie's

Arthur Rimbaud’s career as a publisher was not a great success. It featured a single work: his Une Saison en Enfer, printed in Brussels at his own expense in October 1873. The price, prominently displayed on the cover: one franc. Rimbaud picked up at most ten copies for personal distribution, including one which he thoughtfully left at the Prison des Petits-Carmes for the ‘vierge folle’ (foolish virgin) of the poem, Paul Verlaine, who was in the early months of his sentence for attempting to murder Rimbaud that July. (Another recipient was one of Verlaine’s friends, the artist Félix Régamey, then living in London. We will come back to him.)

The commercial launch of the venture had to wait a little longer. Indeed, no copies were actually sold until 1901, ten years after Rimbaud’s death, when the intact print-run (which had never left the printer’s cellar, Rimbaud having failed to pay the bill) was rediscovered by the Belgian lawyer and bibliophile Léon Losseau, who was hunting for an offprint of La Belgique judiciaire. He bought all 400 or so remaining copies for a neat 40 francs, or 10 centimes each, barring a few damp-damaged examples which were consigned to the printer’s stove. 

Losseau did not publicise the rediscovery until 1912, when he had to resist demands from Rimbaud’s incorrigible brother-in-law, Paterne Berrichon, that he destroy the whole edition. Subsequently, the whole stock gradually entered the market, and prices have risen steadily ever since: a copy, bound with a letter by Losseau describing its discovery, is to be offered at Christie’s Paris on 3 November for €8,000-12,000.

Rimbaud’s instinct that there was money to be made out of the work proved to be justified, therefore: but only long after his death, and thanks to an improbable chain of circumstances. 

And yet Rimbaud is now established as one of the absolute stars of the auction world. He is the only literary figure whose letters regularly sell above £100,000, peaking with a moving letter to his sister Isabelle, written from hospital in Marseille in the last months of his life, after the amputation of his leg (‘Adieu mariage, adieu famille, adieu avenir ! Ma vie est passée, je ne suis plus qu’un tronçon immobile’), which sold in 2018 for €405,000. To put that in context, only two anglophone authors have ever surpassed £100,000 for a single letter at auction: James Joyce (an erotic outpouring to Nora Barnacle, sold in London in 2004 for £241,000), and John Donne (a letter of condolence to Bridget, Lady Kingsmill, sold in London in the same year for £128,000).

Or to put it in a different context: Rimbaud’s autograph manuscript of the poem ‘La rivière de cassis’, copied out for Verlaine in the summer of 1872, shortly before their departure for London, sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2017 for €284,000. This again is a staggeringly high price for a single, short poem. But isn’t it odd that a poem sells for less than a letter, and particularly than a late letter, written when Rimbaud’s creative life was long over? Rimbaud, as the popular narrative has it, was the young poet who threw away his gift; his life as a traveller and trader was a mere coda to his brilliant youth. A poem, particularly a manuscript which forms a link between Rimbaud and Verlaine, should by this logic be worth much more than a mere moment of biography from this commercial second phase of his life. Surely we collect a poet for his poetry?

Image courtesy of Christie's

And yet the relentless financial logic of the auction world suggests otherwise: a three-line autograph receipt signed by Rimbaud in 1889 for a payment of 20,000 thalaris from the Emperor Menelik II sold in 2005 for €14,400 – twice as much as a copy of Une Saison en Enfer. It appears that, in Rimbaud’s case, biography trumps literary relevance.

Such is the elusive appeal of Rimbaud that even images of him are highly sought after by collectors. Indeed, he is almost unique in the world of antiquarian books and manuscripts in being collected as much for his physical appearance as for his creative productions. One sees this in the occasional appearance on the market in France of newly-identified photographs of Rimbaud, such as the one showing him seated with six other guests on the terrace of the Hotel de l’Univers in Aden in the 1880s which was rediscovered by two Paris booksellers in 2010, and promptly sold for a price in the region of €100,000.

The most recent rediscovery in this line comes in the form of a letter by none other than Félix Régamey, writing to his brother from London on 13 September 1872: ‘Now, guess who I’ve had on my back for the last three days. Verlaine and Rimbaud – arrived from Brussels – Verlaine handsome in his own way. Rimbaud, frightful. And each of them without linen. They both decided in favour of gin without hesitation …’. Régamey illustrates this account with a sketch of Rimbaud and Verlaine – the only known drawing of them together. Verlaine is, as described, almost elegant, bearing a gentlemanly cane, a cigar and a newspaper, while Rimbaud indeed looks quite dreadful, stooped, scowling and carrying a pipe. A bobby lurks in the background (though this is probably a scene-setting addition to the drawing by Régamey at the time of its publication in Verlaine dessinateur in 1896). Régamey’s antipathy for Rimbaud,  evident in both letter and drawing, makes him a peculiarly undeserving recipient of the copy of Une Saison en Enfer which Rimbaud sent him from Brussels in the following year. The letter has been untraced for more than a century, and its reappearance adds new details to our knowledge of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s first days in London. It is being offered in the Christie’s Paris auction on 3 November, with an estimate of €70,000-100,000.

Image courtesy of Christie's

One final example of the auction market for Rimbaud and Verlaine neatly bridges the time between the letter and the Brussels publishing venture with which we began. It also acutely illustrates the biographical mania of Rimbaud collectors. This is a 7mm, six-shot revolver of the Lefaucheux type, manufactured in Liège c.1870: it was purchased by Paul Verlaine at the Montigny gunsmiths in Brussels on the morning of 10 July 1873 for 23 francs, and fired in a drunken rage at Rimbaud the same afternoon, leaving the young poet slightly wounded on the left wrist. After Verlaine’s arrest, the weapon was confiscated by the police, and returned to the Montigny firm, where it remained, in a tribute to the remarkable stability of Brussels commerce, and in a curious parallel to the lost print-run of Une Saison en Enfer, until the company finally closed down in 1981. It was then deposited unremarked with the Brussels police, before being sold off to a private collector. The identification with Verlaine’s weapon can be established unequivocally through the serial number, 14096, which matches the entry against Verlaine’s name in the Montigny register. The revolver finally made its public reappearance at auction at Christie’s Paris in 2016, selling for an eye-watering €435,000.  

L'Homme Aux Semelles Devant by Jean-Robert Ipoustéguy

What are collectors looking for, then, in their pursuit of Rimbaud? The evidence is that, above all, they are engaged in a vain attempt to pin down Rimbaud the man, to find some means of proximity to him as a personality. Autograph letters have been described by one passionate collector as a form of time travel, placing you in the presence, at the desk, of the great historical figures, holding the paper they held, reading the words that they wrote. And the expansion of the Rimbaldian collecting world into images and even associated objects takes one even further into the search for a specific time, and a specific place. Perhaps this even suggests that Rimbaud is more than just a literary figure, becoming for some people a much more iconic and symbolic personality? What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is the sheer instinct for survival of these objects associated with Rimbaud, voyaging across time and resisting human forgetfulness, damp and neglect in a way which might even have earned the grudging respect of that indefatigable traveller whom Verlaine nicknamed ‘l’homme aux semelles de vent’ (the man who walks on the wind).


Thomas Venning
Head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s London

Auction Lots:

Lettre autographe signée à son frère Frédéric Régamey, illustrée d'un double portrait de Rimbaud et Verlaine. 

Lettre autographe signée à Paul Bergmans, relative à 'Une saison en Enfer'

Posted on:Wednesday 21st October, 2020