For sale: Poe's "Tamerlane" – the rarest book in American literature

Poe's "Tamerlane," the rarest book in American literature, goes up for auction today.

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They're calling it "the black tulip of US literature." It's a tattered, 1827 copy of "Tamerlane and Other Poems," the first published work of Edgar Allan Poe (although on the book Poe identified himself only as "a Bostonian"). It will be auctioned off this afternoon at Christie's in NY and is expected to sell for somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000.

There are believed to be only 12 remaining copies of "Tamerlane" out of the 50 that were originally printed.  The book apparently looks its age. Tonic.com calls it "stained and frayed," while the Baltimore Sun notes that it has "small notches on the outer and lower margins." It is one of only two copies currently held in private hands.

The book's owner is former television executive and rare book collector William Self. His 300-book collection, all of which goes on sale today, also includes rare works by Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

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Self, who is 88, has told the press that were his children to inherit the books, they wouldn't be able to afford to pay the taxes on them.

"Tamerlane" is the Latinized name of 14th-century historical figure Timur, a Mongol conqueror and emperor. Although a fierce and controversial character with a mixed legacy, Timur was a great patron of the arts who, according to legend, knew a thing or two about rare books himself. His court calligrapher is said to have created two remarkable editions of the Koran, one so small that its text fit on a signet ring, and the other so large that it had to be carried in a wheelbarrow.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MarjorieKehe.

(Chapter & Verse readers are reminded that they can access the Monitor’s Books podcast either at iTunes or by clicking here.)

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