Walt Whitman book sells for $305,000

Walt Whitman
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He may not be topping the best-seller list, but the great American poet and humanist Walt Whitman set a sales record Wednesday at Christie's.

A first edition of "Leaves of Grass," printed for the author, sold for $305,000. That was more than twice Christie's estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, and it marked a world auction record for Whitman.

The previous record for a Walt Whitman book was $230,500, also for a copy of "Leaves of Grass." That one was sold by Sotheby's in October 2011. It's not the most expensive book ever auctioned, of course. That honor is still held by the Bay Psalm Book that went at Sotheby's last fall for $14.2 million.

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But Whitman's sudden price spike shows that even though the mass book market may be dying, a select few highly rare books are soaring in value on the back of the broader boom in collectibles for the wealthy.

"The market for fine and rare books has always been a relatively steady one, given the passionate nature of private collectors for rare items and first editions," said Tom Lecky, Christie's head of books and manuscripts in New York.

He said the rarity of the Whitman book, and the fact that it remained hidden from the public for so long, is "like catnip for collectors, so we were very pleased to see the record price yesterday."

Auction fetches $8.5 million

The book was owned by Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress and avid reader and painter whose baubles were auctioned off Wednesday for a total of $8.5 million.

Another top seller at the sale was Charles Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal," which went for $293,000. Charles Dickens also had a decent sales day, with a first edition of "David Copperfield" selling for $43,750 and a first edition of "A Tale of Two Cities" going for $22,500.

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But the value for "Leaves of Grass" topped those books for both cultural and physical reasons.

As a cultural icon, "Leaves of Grass" remains one of the most famous and quoted works of poetry and has been called America's "Second Declaration of Independence" for its celebration of democracy and individualism.

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Whitman started writing it in 1850 and paid to have it printed himself, working in a local print shop in Brooklyn. He made only 795 copies as he was struggling financially at the time. That makes the one the sold Wednesday so valuable.

The edition has an engraved frontispiece portrait with tissue guard, with the original green cloth with gilt letters.

It's unclear what Whitman—a man hounded throughout his life by poverty and devoted to the common man—would make of his book selling for $305,000 to a wealthy buyer. He may be rolling in his grave. Or he may be reciting the first line of "Leaves of Grass": "I celebrate myself."

—By CNBC's Robert Frank

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