What you see: The original Olympic Games manifesto, handwritten by Pierre de Coubertin, which outlined a plan to revive the contests in modern times. Estimated at $700,000 to $1 million, it sold at Sotheby’s in December 2019 for $8.8 million, setting multiple world auction records, including a record for any item of sports memorabilia.
The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.
Was the notion of reviving the Olympic games floating around before Pierre de Coubertin’s 1892 speech? Or was he the first to suggest reviving the games? He was the first to articulate the concept in a pragmatic way, and he was pragmatic enough to do it at a big jubilee meeting of all the societies for sports and athletics in France, rather than over drinks with friends. The idea of reviving the games was in the ether–that’s a good way to put it. When he made the speech, things started to happen.
What did Pierre de Coubertin know about the ancient Olympic games, and how realistic was his vision for reviving them and modernizing them? I think it was very realistic. He knew as much as many educated people of the time would have known. When you look at the sports that were included in the first Olympic games in 1896, with a few exceptions, they’re the core of the ancient games. He saw it as more than just athletics–spectators played a role. Not everyone can be an Olympic-class athlete, but by having spectators in attendance, as well as expanding [the games’ audience] beyond the athletic events, it was a way of uniting the world’s population.
Does this manuscript represent the first time that Pierre de Coubertin articulated his argument and his vision for a modern Olympic games? Absolutely. He was a great joiner and a founder of associations. He was involved with sporting associations and societies. He wrote a lot, and wrote a lot about physical education in particular. This is absolutely the first time he explicitly mentioned reviving the ancient games.
So we can draw a straight line from this 1889 Olympic manifesto to the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896? I think you can draw a direct line. The audience for the speech was the ideal one–people interested in athletics and efforts to unify the world. This call, and this meeting, lead directly to the founding of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and led to the first modern Olympic games in Athens.
How closely do today’s Olympic games reflect the vision that Pierre de Coubertin lays out in his Olympic manifesto? I think it reflects it very closely. It has expanded. Many more sports are played now. Female athletes are included, rather than just male, and many more countries compete. But his vision is very much what the Olympics are. It’s competition. That’s important, but it’s more than the victory–it’s the shared experiences of the athletes and the spectators as well, tens and even hundreds of millions who watch on TV. The Olympics are now a global event in the way he wished it would be.
What is the Olympic manifesto like in person? What does it tell us about Coubertin and his thought process as he prepared his speech? It shows he did give a lot of thought to this. Virtually every page has some changes. He wrote it entirely himself, based largely on his travels and experiences. It shows a thoughtful, careful craftsman aiming to get his point across.
I understand that Pierre de Coubertin crossed out bits of the Olympic manifesto and underscored others. What would be one or two of the most interesting passages that he marked up? The conclusion. It seems to be leading to a congratulatory wrap-up for the people there. That’s the biggest change–virtually half a page is crossed out in favor of a different summary. It probably came to him as a late inspiration. He realized a while before addressing the group that they could take action if they wanted to. He called them to join with him in an attempt to revive the ancient games.
Do you speak French? I had assistance from a couple of colleagues in France who made a very good translation. One colleague here [in New York] is fluent, and I had them check each other.
Could you discuss the provenance of this piece? I’m surprised that it’s not in a museum already. Do we have any notion as to why the Olympic manifesto remained in private hands for so long? It was written by a private person. He might have left it to the IOC, but he didn’t. It was with Pierre de Coubertin until his death in 1937. Then it was in a private collection in Switzerland. The father of the current consigner got it in the 1980s and passed it to his son. When you think of it in terms of generations, it’s not that old. It’s certainly worthy of being in a museum. The most recent owners have certainly publicized it so it is more widely known. I don’t know what the current owner plans for it, but they bought a great object, and great objects have a way of ending up in public institutions.
How did you set the $700,000 to $1 million estimate? What comparables did you look to? We went back and forth on that. It’s a really compelling manuscript, but we wondered if its being in French would be a hindrance. We certainly thought it was a seven-figure item. It happened that on the day of the sale, we had three bidders, [including] one online that dropped out around one million. I can say if the estimate was eight million, it probably wouldn’t have sold, because there was no precedent for that. Now there is precedent for that. With the next sports manuscript that comes up, I have to take that into account. The Olympics go beyond sport. They’re a global experience and a cultural phenomenon, as Pierre de Coubertin had hoped.
What did you think the Olympic manifesto would sell for? Did you think it had a shot at breaking the record for a sports-related manuscript, set at Sotheby’s in December 2010 by James Naismith’s founding rules of basketball? The Olympic manifesto seems to be a record for any post-Renaissance manuscript of any kind.
Did you think that would happen? I did not. I thought it was going to exceed the estimate and I would have thought it was a good result if it had hit two million. I’ve been here long enough to know if you try to predict prices, you end up looking foolish. If it had sold for one million, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
What do you recall of the auction? What surprised me the most was that it took 12 minutes. I did not have the sense it was taking that long. More and more people came into the room as word got out that something was happening. I looked up, and more and more people were at the back. The bidding contest was Olympian in its own right.
Wow, 12 minutes of bidding on a single lot is an epoch in auction time. Right. I forgot what the next lot was, having sold the Olympic manifesto for $8.8 million. The next lot opened at $1,000 to $1,200. It took some adjusting.
When did you know that the Olympic manifesto had set a record? When it hit five million. I thought that was the signal. It beat Naismith and most baseball memorabilia records. I didn’t have it in mind at that point that few post-Renaissance manuscripts beat that. It was only after the sale that a colleague in London mentioned it.
What’s covered under “post-Renaissance manuscripts”? What else did the Olympic manifesto beat? Most of what we sell as historic or literary manuscripts. No letter by Washington or Lincoln [sold for more]. No manuscript material from around the world from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries sold for more than these 14 pages.
So, were you surprised when the Olympic manifesto commanded so much more than its estimate–within sneezing distance of double-digit millions? I was surprised, yes, but not shocked. I don’t think it’s silly when you think of the magnitude of the Olympic games, and how they continue to be a global phenomenon, and how athletes in an obscure pursuit can be recognized around the world overnight. Given the importance of sport in society, it’s justifiable. To say it’s surprising is not to say it’s unwarranted.
It’s funny to think that the world auction record for any sports manuscript, and really, any piece of sports memorabilia, is 14 pages handwritten in French. But it makes sense when you realize it’s the Olympic manifesto. I think it is important. As much as we tried to promote the Naismith rules as having international importance, the bidders were all American, and basketball is considered an American sport. When we sold the early soccer/football rules through Sotheby’s London office, it was viewed as English. I think the fact that the manifesto was viewed as an Olympic document made it significant around the world. The concern that being in French would limit its appeal was not a problem, because it was an Olympic manuscript. We had three bidders representing three different nationalities. The fact that it was Olympic was a reason for the record-breaking price.
How long do you think the records set by the Olympic manifesto will stand? What could meet or beat it? I just don’t know. I’d like to think if you’re talking in terms of sport–and I don’t mean to denigrate the area–I’d hate to think that anyone’s uniform or bat or ball could achieve a higher price, even if Sotheby’s sold it.
And how about post-Renaissance manuscripts? What’s out there that might meet or beat the Olympic manifesto? If I find another copy of the Gettysburg Address, that would certainly beat it. Thomas Jefferson wrote four handwritten copies of the Declaration of Independence for friends. If one came up for sale, it would certainly exceed the record. It’s hard to think of a single letter that would beat it. Could there be a Lincoln letter out there? There could be, but I don’t know what it would be. A great scientific manuscript by Einstein or Newton could beat it. I think the record could stand for quite a while.
Why will the Olympic manifesto stick in your memory? Because the result was unexpected, and because it was such a satisfying result, after long negotiations with the consigner. It came through a colleague in Paris, but we agreed that New York was a better place to offer it, though it was written by a Frenchman, in French. The process probably took about a year from first contact. I was very happy for the consigner as well. He put himself in our hands and didn’t question the estimate or the marketing. It was an instance where everybody was happy except for the underbidder.
Selby Kiffer appeared twice previously on The Hot Bid, discussing a double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and Frank Sinatra’s personal copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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