Published On: April 11, 2018

Brazilian Collects History

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A Brazilian boy’s passion for collecting documents that began almost 50 years ago has blossomed into a collection of 100 thousand autographs, manuscripts, and letters. At age 11, Pedro Corrêa do Lago began writing to individuals he admired.

The English novelist J. R. R. Tolkien declined to send him anything. The French filmmaker François Truffaut, however, sent an illustrated, signed book about his 1969 film “L’Enfant Sauvage.”

Pedro has chosen the most extraordinary 140 items from his enormous collection that also includes photographs, drawings, and other documents, and these will be included in an upcoming exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. Pedro, now 60, who is fond of saying, “Every signature is an autograph but not every autograph is a signature,” has an amazing collection, dating from the year 1140 to the present.

The exhibition, entitled “The Magic of Handwriting,” will remain on display for three months at the museum and features documents from, among others, the scientists Newton and Einstein; the artists Michelangelo and van Gogh; the authors Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust; the composers Mozart and Beethoven; and the entertainers Charlie Chaplin and Billie Holiday.

Letter from Mozart to his father, Leopold, February 7, 1778

Letter from Mozart to his father, Leopold, February 7, 1778

Pedro’s remarkable collection was inspired by a visit he made to the Morgan Museum as a teenager, where he viewed the wide-ranging collection of the financier Pierpont Morgan. In the late 19th century, Pierpont Morgan began his collection of early printed books and illuminated manuscripts, as well as autograph manuscripts (the original texts, handwritten by their authors) by the novelists Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, among others.

There are many authors Pedro has selected for the exhibition because they are featured in the Morgan Museum’s collection, he said, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as more crowd-pleasing items like a 1965 photo of the Beatles signed by them.

In a recent interview at the Morgan Museum, Pedro reminisced about his first visit to New York, when he was about 17. “I was fascinated by the museum,” he said. “It was the top of Everest for me, with its fantastic music manuscripts and authors’ letters.”

Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum, Manhattan

Morgan Library & Museum, Manhattan

As the son of a Brazilian diplomat, Pedro has lived all over the world and became fluent in five languages. Now a publisher, author, and art historian based in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, he is married to Maria Beatriz Fonseca, a screenwriter who has written four books with him.

Pedro said he had been “very ambitious” in his collecting. “I make money to spend on my collection.” He buys autograph materials from large auction houses like Bonham’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as through dealers and private sales. “I’ve worked a lot more than I would have to be able to pay for this passion. I’m basically lazy, but I knew I had auction bills to pay.”

Pedro said he hoped his collection would appeal to anyone with “an open spirit. You don’t have to be a scholar to like the exhibition,” he said. “Almost every item I’ve chosen is a conversation piece.” He declined to estimate the value of his entire collection, but he admitted that some individual items were worth more than U$100,000.

As for the future, he predicted that collecting autographs of individuals today would be increasingly difficult. Acknowledging that he writes handwritten notes perhaps twice a year, he said: “Autographs of our contemporaries will be a lot rarer. Letters by Steve Jobs are extremely valuable because there are very few of them; they’re more valuable than Abraham Lincoln’s.”

Illustrated letter from Henri Matisse to the art publisher Albert Skira, Feb. 16, 1949

Illustrated letter from Henri Matisse to the art publisher Albert Skira, February 16, 1949

Pierpont Morgan hired the architect Charles McKim to design an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo for this collection, adjacent to his palatial residence on Madison Avenue and 36th Street in Manhattan. His son, J.P. Morgan Jr., opened the collection to scholars and the public in 1924.

Christine Nelson, a curator at the Morgan Museum, said her favorite piece in the new exhibit is an 1871 letter the poet Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Adelaide Hills, who had a daughter named Emily. The letter reads: “To be remembered is next to being loved, and to be loved is heaven, and is this quite earth? I have never found it so.”

Ms. Nelson said: “It’s so moving to see in Dickinson’s own hand what she wrote to a friend in a particular moment. We think of her as a recluse, but she was, in fact, deeply connected — through correspondence, through handwriting. My work is all about memory and collecting; these everyday traces of people’s lives allow us to remember them.”

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Adelaide Hills, 1871

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Adelaide Hills, 1871

The exhibit of Pedro’s astonishing collection was designed by Daniela Thomas, a Brazilian theater set and museum show designer who was a director of the opening ceremony for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. To help visitors focus, each document will be displayed unframed, enclosed in a gray free-standing case with a slanted top like a writing desk; caption information will be easily readable on a panel attached above each case.

The cases will be divided into six sections, devoted to art, history, literature, science, music, and entertainment. The oldest piece will be a vellum bull dating to 1153 and signed by four Popes. The newest will be a 2006 thumbprint signature of the physicist Stephen Hawking.

[Article was adapted from an article appearing in The New York Times]

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