Marsha Malinowski – Linking History One Page at a Time

By Caryn B. Davis

Marsha-Malinowski-auctioneeHow does a girl from Norwich grow up to find herself executing the $24 million dollar dispersal of Barry Halper’s collection of baseball memorabilia, or the $$21.8 million dollar sale of the Magna Carta, or selling a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his optician inquiring about bifocals, not once – but three times? Well for Marsha Malinowski, it’s just another day at the office.

Malinowski is from a bilingual family and mastered English and Polish at a young age. After taking a class in French, she fell in love with languages and went on to earn a B.A. from Wellesley College and her M.A. from Brown University. By then she was fluent in four languages including Italian, could read Latin and Spanish, and had a comprehensive knowledge of history and art history.

Malinowski didn’t want a career in academia. At a friend’s suggestion, she went for an informational meeting at Sotheby’s in New York. They happened to need a manuscript specialist in their books and manuscripts department. She was hired on the spot.

Marsha-Malinowski-Show-Boat copyMalinowski trained as a cataloger and worked her way up to Senior Vice President. At first she conducted research for senior experts who were cataloging manuscripts, letters, and books for auction sale, but became so adept she started working directly with clients who had something to sell or buy.

“I was reading a Napoleon letter one day and a Claude Monet letter the next. I love biographies, and I read a lot when I was young. But when reading letters you learn so much more about a person and in a deeper way,” says Malinowski, who is one of less than 100 people capable of performing this type of work.

She was also trained as an auctioneer, which was as exhilarating as it was intense. There was no room for mistakes. Malinowski was quick and accurate and soon became a favored auctioneer. Her expertise eventually earned her a guest spot on the PBS series, “Antiques Roadshow. ”

At Sotheby’s, as with her own company, Malinowski worked with corporations, private collectors, institutions, and people who inherit documents with no clue as to what they are or their value.

“I had a Frederic Chopin letter discovered in a grandmother’s safe deposit box after she passed away. It was worth $50,000; and the person had no idea what it was,” says she.

Everything has to be researched and authenticated; and if the provenance (history of ownership and how it arrived on the market) is established, it adds to the object’s significance. To achieve this, Malinowski utilizes the Morgan Library in New York, which she considers “one of the great repositories for manuscript material,” along with New York’s historical society and public library.

“If I need to compare handwriting, those are the places I go. There are also databases with reproductions of letters we sold so I can compare and contrast. I also go back to biographies and history books. Say I have a George Washington letter from 1789: I can track exactly what he was doing then and place the letter in historical context which gives it more value and meaning and brings that person to life,” says Malinowski.

Malinowski has read heart-wrenching letters from Marilyn Monroe to her coach Lee Strasberg confessing her fears about acting while under the influence, evidenced by her erratic handwriting; a Michelangelo letter that sold for half a million; sappy love letters written by Edward VIII before he married Wallis Simpson; a letter from Camille Pissarro to his dealer; and a series of Vincent van Gogh letters.

“This was the most extraordinary private sale. The letters were in a Tupperware container wrapped with a rubber band around it with layers of tissue paper between each. Some had drawings on them. They were all to Anthon van Rappard, a Dutchman who was van Gogh’s friend and kind of a dandy who dabbled in art but wasn’t that accomplished. The conversation was philosophical, about the meaning of art,” says Malinowski. “This person had 58 letters all thought to be lost. His wife  who passed away, was the daughter of a famous collector and the letters were  handed down in the family so the provenance was clean. We negotiated a private sale with the Van Gogh Museum.”

The most beautiful cache of letters Malinowski has come across was penned by author Erich Maria Remarque who wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Remarque was hopelessly in love with a Russian model. The letters were co-signed to Malinowski from a descendant of the model’s family.

“He was head over heels and couldn’t stop thinking about her. She just cooled, and he never understood it. He later married but wrote her one last letter before he died telling her she was the one he always loved,” Malinowski says.

Another poignant letter that stands out of the many thousands Malinowski has witnessed was from Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud. Malinowski was invited to the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Chicago to view this correspondence entitled “Why War?” Einstein told Freud while he understood physics and math, he couldn’t fathom why man needed to fight with man and wanted a psychological interpretation.

“Freud writes back a seven page letter on a huge folio explaining there is something in the psyche of man that makes him need to fight. The Institute had been given the manuscripts but needed to sell them because they wanted to build a wing for battered women and had nowhere to display them. I sold them for over $150,000, and they were able to use the money for that. The letters went into a private collection. I never knew who owned them, but 15 years ago I went on an appraisal to a bank vault and there they were, perfectly preserved in a very fine collection,” Malinowski recalls.

But by far the greatest document she ever handled was the $21.8 million dollar sale of a 13th century copy of the Magna Carta owned by Ross Perot. Perot purchased it from the Brudenell family who had it for five centuries. He loaned it to the National Archives for display. Eventually Perot want to sell it. David Rubenstein purchased it  and promptly returned it to the Archive.

“That was one of my proudest moments, and it’s still at the Archive so everyone can see it,” says Malinowski.

On the success of this sale, Malinowski decided to leave Sotheby’s after 26 years to start her own company, Marsha Malinowski Fine Books & Manuscripts, LLC. Her work is still exciting. Currently she is overseeing the sale of two handwritten manuscripts by Louisa May Alcott, best known for her book “Little Women.”

“This is the original that went to the printer. She gives instructions after the chapters about the type of illustrations she wanted. She also wrote her own corrections in it making it even more valuable,” says Malinowski. “The provenance is impeccable. It belonged to a man named Royce who gave one each to his daughters on their birthdays in 1929. One of the daughters in turn gave it to the current owner. This is an extremely rare manuscript. Alcott material is not often found on the market, especially 500 pages.”

Malinowski believes it’s important to keep history alive and interesting. She hopes the work she does will do just that.

“I feel I need to carry the torch. Along with my colleagues, when we write or talk or exchange manuscripts, it is a great opportunity for people to learn from them; and hopefully it becomes more real to young people too,” she says.

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