Victor Gulotta, BA ’78, a literary publicist, is a collector of rare books and antiquities.
Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia Christi Americana” (1702). A military commission signed by Queen Victoria. A mummy mask from the time of Cleopatra. These are just a few highlights from Victor Gulotta’s astonishing collection of rare books and antiquities. There are even broadsides from the early 1800s adorning the bathrooms of his Sudbury, Massachusetts, home, which he shares with wife and UB alumna, Donna Sheinberg, PhD ’88, BA ’77.
Gulotta, a literary publicist who majored in English at UB, began his career at Prometheus Books, founded by the late UB philosophy professor Paul Kurtz, where he worked with acclaimed writers like Isaac Asimov. Today, in addition to promoting authors worldwide, he collects, and often sells, books and artifacts. These include his Henry Wadsworth Longfellow collection, which Harvard University purchased in 2001.
Why do you collect?
For me, material culture—books, letters, manuscripts, photographs, sculpture, engravings and other art forms—brings history to life. The visual and tactile experience of these objects has always been the driving force for my collecting.
Did your UB academic background inform your collecting activities?
Emphatically, yes! One of my professors, the poet Robert Creeley, made Walt Whitman come alive by reading his poems to us. That had such a profound effect on me that I visited Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, New York. I wrote a paper about my experience there and included postcard views of the house and Whitman. The desire for visuals to accent my experience of reading and learning about the author’s life began here.
How did you branch out from books to art and antiquities?
I was visiting a rare book dealer and picked up a 2,000-year-old marble memorial tablet. It spoke to me and I thought, “OK, I guess I’m going in a new direction now!” I began collecting urns and drinking vessels from the 4th-century B.C. Then, cuneiform, hieroglyphics and pictograms. So, I started with 19th-century books, and kept going back in time, and thought, “I’m going to be collecting cave art soon!”
How do you know when it’s time to let a collection go?
There’s a saturation point, when I feel I’ve fully explored an author’s life, and had such a great time, but know I’m ready to move on. For the past decade, I’ve focused on collecting Puritan and Pilgrim documents signed by important officials, like the Salem witch trial judges. These are very rare—and I think underappreciated and undervalued. I want to institutionalize this collection because I’ve reached the saturation point and it’s been frustrating collecting, as these pieces rarely come on the market.
Do you have advice for others who want to begin collecting?
Be mindful when making purchases. You should break even or, hopefully, make money, if you sell your collection. Read as much as you can about your subject—literary history, bibliography, auction records—so you can make informed decisions. When you collect antiquities, be careful. There’s so much looting and so many forgeries. You always have to check the provenance. But, first and foremost, collect what you love because it gives you pleasure.
You consider collections “projects.” Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously?
In the late ’80s, I started collecting Longfellow because of a bio I read. I thought he was fascinating—he’s a polymath, poet, professor, translator, talented in so many areas. Because of limited funds, I had to hyper-focus on collecting just his work. At one point, I tapped into the Longfellow family, which had an extraordinary collection going back to the 1930s. The owner said he would let me know when he was ready to sell it. He knew I was passionate about Longfellow, so he chose me! When I finally sold the collection to Harvard, I thought, well, now I can collect anything I want. But old habits die hard and I started to focus solely on Dickens next. However, I wasn’t a Dickens completist as I was with Longfellow.
What’s the most valuable book/object you’ve ever owned?
Three illustrations related to Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. In April of 1836, Dickens was looking for an artist to illustrate “The Pickwick Papers.” Actually, a new artist as Dickens put so much pressure on the original artist, Robert Seymour, that Seymour committed suicide! Thackeray, an artist and writer, prepared three pencil drawings, went to Dickens’ apartment, showed him the drawings, and left, thinking he had the job. The next evening, Thackeray was out celebrating with a fellow artist. Turns out, the “fellow artist” got the gig! So, in 1991, while working for a rare book dealer in Boston, I went to New York City to pick up some auction pieces. Those three drawings were part of that collection! I couldn’t believe it! I thought, “if I had a lot of money, I would have bought them,” but a dentist ended up purchasing them. Years later, I sold my Longfellow collection, the dentist was interested in selling them, and I bought them! Eventually, I sold them to Harvard, which opened the door for new acquisitions.
Have you ever started a collection that didn’t pan out?
I did start collecting Washington Irving, a great New York State author. His pseudonym was Geoffrey Crayon, by the way. I have a first edition of “The Sketch Book,” which contains the first appearance of two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But I sold the collection because we needed money for the home we had just bought: a big colonial home from 1771, which required a lot of upkeep.
What are you collecting now?
H.G. Wells. As part of my burgeoning Wells collection, I have a rare first edition of “The Time Machine,” one of his most sought-after books. Ray Bradbury, who was greatly inspired by Wells, wrote on the flyleaf: “H.G. Wells was my love!–Ray Bradbury.” A really good association copy, as they say. I also have a first edition of “The Invisible Man” with Wells’ signature on the bookplate.
Published March 21, 2023
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