Wagner's script

Some decades ago a New York auction house whose name begins with the letter "S" mailed out its latest catalogue of autographs and manuscripts. I took the catalogue home with me one evening, sat down in my easy chair and began to work my way through it without a great deal of interest, until I got to the letter "W." At that point I read a very unusual and intriguing entry. It was for a Richard Wagner item, and Wagner's name had been placed in parenthesis. As most auction goers know, a name listed in parenthesis means that in the cataloguer’s opinion, the item is not by the personal listed. This lot described a musical manuscript, to which was added the emphatic opinion of the auction house employee that the unsigned manuscript was definitely, positively, categorically not in Wagner's hand, but that of an amanuensis. These kinds of descriptions, for me at least, always signal an "opportunity”. Who says the manuscript is not in Wagner's hand? How do they know? What examination have they done, what proof have they offered? I am the first to admit that 99 times out of a hundred the auction house is correct. But once in a hundred, or two hundred, or five hundred times, they are not correct, they slip up.

David Lowenherz

  • Autographs

The more I looked at the manuscript, the more I felt it was, as one calls it, "the real thing," a manuscript entirely in the hand of Richard Wagner

I decided to have a look at the not-Wagner manuscript when it came time to view the sale. It was a single sheet of music scored for the Ophicleide (a brass instrument and 19th-century favorite of the "romantic" school) to Wagner's Tannhaeuser Overture. You'd recognize the instrument's pronounced part in the overture if you heard it. The writing was mostly musical notation with barely a word in the composer's hand. Upon looking at the manuscript, which had a pre-sale estimate of 2-300 dollars (a fair price for something not in Wagner's hand) it certainly looked like Wagner's handwriting, and I began questioning whether the cataloguer was right to suggest that the music was in someone else's hand. The ink of the few words and the ink of the musical notation were identical. Had the scribe and the composer dipped their quill pens into the same inkpot? Unlikely. The more I looked at the manuscript, the more I felt it was, as one calls it, "the real thing," a manuscript entirely in the hand of Richard Wagner.

True, just a single leaf, but a leaf from the Tannhaeuser Overture -- one of his most famous! I asked for a photocopy to take back to my office reference library in order to check it against known examples of Wagner's hand. It is not generally known, but perfectly rational, that each composer has as distinctive a musical hand, as he has when writing letters. But an unsigned musical manuscript can present problems because one needs to be familiar with how the notes and other forms of musical notation are written in order to ascribe authorship. It's a mini-science unto itself. In fairly short order I determined that the manuscript was entirely in the hand of Wagner. Further research revealed that it had been sold by another New York auction house whose name began with "C" where it was described properly. In the intervening years, somehow, the supporting documentation had been lost. So this was a real "find," worth many multiples of it's estimate. Great! But how do I get it?

I needed to formulate a plan to guarantee the acquisition of this undervalued and rare object. The plan involved pizza.

The fact that the manuscript would be offered at the end of the sale meant that I could come in rather late. I figured that if I came in at the beginning I ran the risk of running into other colleagues or collectors who might, just might, say something like: "So, what do you think of that Wagner?' Or "Are you going to bid on that Wagner copy?" Or "What brings you here, anyway?" I skipped the first part of the sale and before I ventured into the afternoon session, I ate a slice of pizza at a nearby restaurant to pass the time, calling in to find out what lot the auctioneer was selling at the moment. I then wandered in shortly before the Wagner was scheduled to go under the hammer. This way, no one could ask me anything. I sat in the back. I was very quiet and very nervous. I was going to make a killing, a huge score (forgive the pun), right?

The lot came up and opened with $100 on the book. I bid $125. The auctioneer bid $150 against me. I bid $175. Silence. "Going, going, gone!" It was knocked down to me for $175. I sold it a few months later for about 80 times what I paid for it. Not bad for a day's work and the cost of a slice of pizza!"