Barns collect junk. They are a place to store your stuff while you go to get more stuff (sorry George Carlin) but there comes a time when that stuff has to be cleared out. That can happen when someone is getting ready to tear down a barn or it could just happen when someone wants to free up some space. For most people this may only net a few dollars and clearing the space may be much more valuable but you should pay attention to what you have and just not assume that it is old junk. One person in 1988 found what may be the find of the century, an original first edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane.
Edgar Allan Poe was perhaps the most famous American horror writer on the 19th century. He is a central figure of the Romanticism style and his poetry and short stories are still studied today. Poe was one of the first writers to use short stories and was a pioneer of detective fiction and science fiction. He was also one of the first American authors to try to make being a writer a full time profession which resulted in a lifetime of financial difficulty before dying at the age of 40.
Poe had enrolled in college but left after one year when he could no longer afford it. He constantly clashed with his adoptive parents over money stemming from gambling. To get away he enrolled in the army. He was stationed in Boston and it was there in 1827 that he published his first work, Tamerlane and other Poems anonymously. Only 50 copies were made and Poe paid for the publishing of the book himself and could not afford much more on an enlisted soldier’s salary. His publisher was used to making pamphlets and labels and it was released with no fanfare and immediately disappeared into obscurity.
Poe must have found army life agreeable as he discharged in order to attend West Point. His family life fell apart and he was purposely court martialed in order to be dismissed from the army after less than 6 months in school. Before entering West Point he had published a second work, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems in 1829 and in 1831 he published Poems and decided to become a writer.
An original copy of Tamerlane is rare with only a handful of copies existing. It is 40 pages long and was written by Poe when in 1821 and 1822. He had originally never intended the poems included to be published but had done so anyway. It is believed that only 12 copies remain and one, which was owned by the University of Virginia, was stolen in 1974 and its whereabouts remain unknown. Nine are in public collections and another is owned by a private collector. Many of these volumes were discovered in the 1920s and 1930s in people’s attics prompting numerous newspaper headlines to ask “Have you a Tamerlane in your attic?”
The discoverer found his copy while rummaging through a bin of pamphlets of farm implements and fertilizers. He knew he had found something interesting and paid $15 for the book. For its age it was in very good shape. The man had never read Poe and took to reading it but never in his wildest dreams did the man (who wanted to remain anonymous) believe he had something as valuable as he did. When he realized that he did have something valuable he contacted Sotheby’s Boston office and they shipped the book via armored car to their New York office to have it appraised.
Previously the last copy of Tamerlane to be found was in 1954 and it was auctioned in 1974 for $123,000. When this copy went onto the auction block it fetched over $250,000, a then-record for American literature which was later shattered in 2009 when another copy fetched over $660,000! Not bad for an old book gathering dust in a bin of pamphlets about fertilizer in a barn.