The Eric C. Caren Collection
Photos: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017
Eric C. Caren has been called the “Babe Ruth of private historical collecting” and compared to the 19th century collector Sir Thomas Phillips. His collection, The Caren Archive, is acknowledged as one of the largest and most important private collections of Paper Americana in the United States, with over one million original and historic newspapers, periodicals, manuscripts and photographs – literally documenting how history unfolded on paper from the 16th century, forward.
Like many young boys Eric started out collecting baseball cards, stamps, fossils, and coins. He also loved watching “the romantic, sometimes silly historical TV shows and movies; what we used to call Cowboys and Indian movies and Errol Flynn swashbucklers,” for which he credits his love of history. At age 11, he discovered some old newspapers in an abandoned house and the rest, as they say, is literally history.
“When I was 11 some kids in my class were bringing in old newspaper pages from two defunct Brooklyn papers they had found in an abandoned house. As a born and bred New Yorker, Babe Ruth was my idol. I asked for any old sports pages with Babe Ruth and someone brought me a page from a 1913 paper – I was fascinated. I ended up taking home more weight in these papers than I weighed. Some of them dated back to the 1890s. My first newspaper purchase came from an ad in Hobbies magazine where I bought an 18th century newspaper for $4.95 because I couldn’t afford the 17th century newspaper priced at $7.95. That was the foundation of the collection. I have since proceeded to collect everything on paper—photographs, manuscripts, newspapers, letters, diaries—related to major events in American and world history. The theme is ‘all the great events and people in history and the reportage of those things.’ My goal is to collect one item from each historical event starting with Columbus arriving in America and going through the Computer Age.”
For Caren, the item’s timeliness is the key criteria for inclusion in his collection. He looks for ephemera from events that made news or should have made news at the time—firsts, inventions, pioneers, etc.—from or around the time of the event. “It runs the gamut,” concedes Caren.
“The aggregate effect [of Caren’s collection] is a majestic sweep of history as it was lived, with a thrilling sense of immediacy and witness,” says Christina Geiger, senior specialist for Christie’s Books & Manuscripts division. “He doesn’t own just ‘history as dictated by the victors’ as might be enshrined in rare books but the much rarer stories of participants and eye-witnesses.” Geiger is currently working with Caren to prepare for a June 15 single-collector auction of items from The Caren Archives at Christie’s. This will be the fifth auction from the collection (a 2014 auction at Bonhams realized $1,370 million) with two more planned through Cowan’s in the coming year. “I’m particularly proud of the material in this sale,” shares Caren.
Geiger, who is no stranger to impressive collections, is quick to share what items caught her attention. “My favorites are probably the number of items that are simply jaw-dropping survivals. To list just a few: a 500-year old illustrated broadside on the death of Emperor Maximilian; Lee’s address to his troops as they retreated from Gettysburg; a Police flyer handed out to the residents of Whitechapel during the middle of the Jack the Ripper murders; and, most precious, an original 1692 deposition from the Salem Witch Trials against Margaret Scott, soon afterwards executed as a witch.”
Despite what has been sold, and what will be sold in June at Christie’s, and at two upcoming auctions at Cowan’s—the first scheduled for this coming September—Caren’s carefully planned sell-off is not about reducing the size of the collection (“I’ll still have enough to have something for every major event in history”) but about his ongoing mission and investing in new material.
Over 50 years after lugging home those old newspapers and the “tens of thousands of miles in-between,” Caren is still an active collector, and is as passionate about what’s still out there as he has always been.
The goal today, says Caren, is to collect “everything that I have ever owned that I still love that I’ve sold, and everything that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never lost my lust for this wonderful hobby/business. I am as intrigued by a $100 item that I’ve never seen before as I am by a very expensive item.” Caren shares that just recently he purchased a 1777 Philadelphia printing of the Declaration of Independence contained in the Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776 from a dealer in New Jersey.
With so many unique and historic items to choose from you would think it would be hard for Eric to point to a personal favorite, but when asked Caren says it’s an ALS about the Deerfield Massacre from 1704 that he purchased privately about a year ago. “It was the most difficult event in history to find, bar none.”
One has to ask with a collection this size what is Caren’s ultimate plan for its future. “Collectors like to think they are going to live forever. When I learned that I would not be the first collector to live forever I made a will so when I go everything is to be sold off and the proceeds to go to St. Jude’s.” How poignant that history will give a future to the next generation of newsmakers.