Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Private Library Is Coming to Auction
(Bloomberg) -- More than 1,000 books from the private library of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (popularly known as RBG) are set to come to auction at Bonhams this month.
The online-only sale, which will run Jan. 19-27, will be divided into about 165 lots, including a combination of heavily annotated law books, fiction, first editions, and ephemera gifted to the late Supreme Court justice and her husband Martin by friends and admirers.
“I think people who are interested in American history and the history of the judicial system will be excited,” says Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams. “Maybe you don’t know you’re a book collector yet, but you know you love Ruth Bader Ginsburg—this is the perfect sale.”
The low estimate for the entire sale is $60,000, Williamson says, a comparatively modest number because the books are valued as books, not collectibles.
In reality, she says, “I expect this sale to do many times that amount.”
When RBG died in September 2020 at the age of 87, she left behind a massive personal library that she had assembled with her husband over the course of 60 years. (Martin Ginsburg had died in 2010.)
“There were books all over the house,” says the couple’s daughter Jane Ginsburg, a professor of literary and artistic property law at Columbia Law School. “In the living room, most of the walls were covered in bookshelves—but also in each bedroom. They occasionally had to keep adding bookshelves.”
Even so, she adds, her parents weren’t book collectors: they were just big readers. “I think their tastes were highly eclectic,” Ginsburg says. “They certainly read novels and nonfiction and law-related books, not just for work but for general interest.”
Early in their relationship, she continues, “they would often read books to each other. These were probably mostly novels, but my father, more than my mother, read a lot of detective novels. My mother was not really a detective novel fan.”
The thousand-odd books in the Bonhams sale are just one piece, Ginsburg says, of her parents’ library.
After the jurist’s death, the couple’s paperbacks were donated to prison libraries. Their art books were distributed to various family members and RBG’s music-related books went to the Washington National Opera, along with opera-related CDs.
Family members then chose books for themselves, and the rest, Ginsburg says, went to Bonhams.
Inside the Sale
What’s left, Williamson says, are books that cover a spectrum of RBG’s intellectual and personal interests.
“A handful” of law textbooks are heavily annotated, Williamson says, as was Ginsburg’s personal copy of the 1957-58 Harvard Law Review, the year she was a member. Included are presentation copies dedicated to RBG by their authors; several volumes related to Supreme Court matters; and “presentation things to honor her—honorary diplomas and other things.”
There are also “certain works that she would have read, and resonated with her,” Williamson continues, “like landmark feminist classics, which I pulled out and put by themselves.”
And then there are books that speak to RBG’s association with people of note: a signed copy of a book by Jane Goodall, another from Al Gore, one by Toni Morrison.
“Once you pull things out that can stand as groups, then you try to create small groups of three to 10 volumes that hang together thematically,” Williamson says.
Many of the books contain bookplates: “They said either Ruth and Martin Ginsburg, or just Ruth Ginsberg. You’ll open a book up and it will read “From the Library of Ruth Ginsburg,” says Williamson.
Lots carry attainable estimates. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, which is signed and inscribed to “Ruth and Marty Ginsburg,” carries a high estimate of $500; Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, inscribed to “dearest Ruth,” carries the same estimate.
A copy of Antonin Scalia’s Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges is also signed and inscribed to his fellow Supreme Court justice, and carries a high estimate of $700.
“They’ll sell for what they sell for,” Williamson says, “because there’s no reserve.”
The process of cataloguing RBG’s library has been an education in itself, she says.
“It’s pretty personal to go through someone’s library, but I think a lot of my ideas were confirmed.”
RBG’s reputation, Williamson concludes, was made manifest through her books: “she was brilliant, thoughtful, careful, clear, and kind.”
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