Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Quinn: Contemporary Collector Extraordinaire

John Quinn (1870-1924), a visionary when it came to collecting contemporary literature and art, set a high standard that few, if any, have surpassed since.
Quinn was born in Fostoria, Ohio of Irish parents, attended the University of Michigan and then received law degrees from both Georgetown University and Harvard.   Reading and collecting came early and by the time he was a teenager he was buying contemporary authors for his ever expanding library.   Later, when money came in bushels from his successful New York City law career he continued to focus on contemporary books and art on a grand scale. Quinn took things one big step further and got to know personally many of the writers of his time.   His particular interest in Irish writers led to friendships abroad with now legendary authors such as W. B. Yeats, John Synge and James Joyce.  Other prominent writers that were close friends included Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 
Hangin' with the boys in Paris 1923: Joyce, Pound, Quinn, and Ford Madox Ford

Quinn did not hesitate to play patron to writers in financial need and in return received a steady stream of books and original manuscripts.  He was an astute critic and voracious reader, widely respected by the literary coterie. Quinn was also instrumental in the publication of numerous important works in America including Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).  Quinn’s energy level was phenomenal both at work and play and his personality large.  Inevitably he got embroiled in literary and political disputes, he never married and chased skirts with frequency, he suffered from ill health and hypochondria, and he often times bit off more than he could proverbially chew.  However, Quinn was in the main a loyal and honest man to those around him and had a fundamentally generous nature.  His voluminous correspondence with important literary figures, much of it now published in various forms, is critical to an understanding of the period.   (His papers are primarily at the New York Public Library).
It is easy to forget just how astute a collector Quinn was of his contemporaries given the now famous status of many of the writers involved.   He owned for example, all of Joseph Conrad’s major manuscripts,  the manuscript of Joyce’s Ulysses, Synge’s manuscript of The Playboy of the Western World, Eliot’s The Waste Land, much of Yeats’ best work in manuscript,  just to touch on a few—the material acquired directly from the authors themselves.  Quinn’s book holdings, replete with hundreds of inscribed copies, reflect a revolutionary effort at gathering contemporary authors on a massive scale.
For space and monetary reasons, Quinn eventually decided to sell his book collection at auction in 1923-24.  The auction catalogue, much of it compiled by Quinn himself, was a tour de force and contained biographical and bibliographical information not found elsewhere. 
The George W. Cole--Yale--Donald Gallup Copy
Mitchell Kennerley, head of Anderson Auction Galleries, published the catalogue in five volumes comprising 12,096 individual lots.  The catalogue was reprinted a number of times and is still a useful reference.  The sale results however were in the whole disappointing despite numerous individual auction records.  Quinn was simply ahead of his time and his contemporary collection not yet fully appreciated.  Quinn estimated he realized about $170,000 for items that had cost him about $250,000. The book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach made the biggest splash by buying up almost all the Conrad manuscripts at record prices and also acquiring Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript for only $1,975.  (Rosenbach salted them away and they still remain at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia).   Joyce was unhappy, not so much that his manuscript had been sold—Quinn had notified him beforehand of his plans—but that it had brought so much less than the Conrad material.   Now, many individual items in the Quinn collection would bring more than the whole total garnered in 1924.
                Quinn was not entirely pleased with the sale returns but he took things in stride.  He had big plans to expand his contemporary art collection.  Tragically, Quinn was diagnosed with liver cancer shortly after the sale of his books, his health worsened rapidly and he passed away at the age of 54 on July 28, 1924.    
For those interested in reading more about Quinn an essential reference is B. L. Reid’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends (1968). 
I’ve gathered a number of Quinn items for my association collection over the years.  One recent gem is Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916) inscribed to Quinn.  Irish-born Harris was quite a character, infamously remembered for his ribald autobiography, My Life and Loves.  (Quinn described him as “a close friend of Oscar Wilde, whom he did not desert in the time of trouble. . . A man of exceptional ability, but rather combative, and in his latest work [Life and Loves], carrying frankness beyond agreeable limits.”)    Quinn tolerated Harris rather than liked him, but read as a courtesy the manuscript of this Wilde biography before publication with an eye toward libel.  Quinn also had a huge collection of Wilde’s works, making this a tasty association.  The book was originally purchased at the Quinn sale by Edwin Seasongood, longtime friend of Quinn, fellow Harvard law graduate and NYC lawyer.  Seasongood sent the book back to Quinn shortly thereafter and Quinn added the inscription for him.
Frank Harris. Oscar Wilde. 1916

Two other books of particular interest are Wilson Follett’s groundbreaking Joseph Conrad: A Short Study (1915) inscribed by Quinn to his close friend, the Irish critic and writer, T. W. Rolleston.  
Follett. Joseph Conrad. 1915
 Another is James Huneker’s Ivory Apes and Peacocks (1915).  Huneker, another close friend, dedicated the book to Quinn and Quinn sent this copy to his sister, Clara, a nun, who later presented it to the St. Charles Seminary Library in Carthagena, Ohio. 
Huneker. Ivory Apes and Peacocks. 1915.
Quinn’s bookplate by artist John B. Yeats, father of W. B. Yeats, is pictured, as is the cover of the Quinn auction sale catalogue above, my set formerly in the libraries of Huntington librarian George Watson Cole, Yale University, and Donald Gallup, bibliographer of Eliot and Pound.


  1. Can you tell me where you found the portrait of Mr. Quinn at the top? Any idea when that portrait was taken?


  2. Excellent, fascinating pieces and insights into their links, many thanks!

    Tom Quinn, Bloomsbury, London, UK