June 19, 1994
Master of manuscripts
By Larry Oakes
Peer down through the glass and behold Thomas
Edison’s handwriting on a check for $15.93, the payment of
his gaslight bill on Aug. 23, 1875.
Step to another case in this new Duluth museum
and realize that Napolean touched the document there, authorizing
his own salary with the sweep of a quill.
Classical music and golden light filter from above,
inviting you to linger over a page upon which Louisa May Alcott
toiled, or a letter Brigham Young penned to a young Ohio man who
was considering a pilgrimage to the Great Salt Lake. Twenty-one
more glass cases await, more windows to history.
Of course it’s remarkable to find such treasures
in Duluth, in a museum that seeks no tax dollars or donations, and
charges no admission. The explanation lies in the little known story
of the Duluth bus driver’s son who wanted to be a teacher
but instead became a California tycoon; a man who quietly accumulated,
and spends a great deal of money to share, one of the largest private
collections of rare documents in the world.
A tycoon appears
Last August, the 1953 graduating class of Denfeld
High School in Duluth had a reunion. Among those who attended was
David Karpeles, 58, now of Santa Barbara, Calif.
As multimillionaires with local roots go, few
in Duluth knew of Karpeles until recently; no frozen food bears
his name, and he employs no public relations staff or ad agents.
But at the most prestigious auction houses in
the world, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, they know him well;
his wealth, made by dealing California real estate during the 1960s
and 1970s, is said to be as immense as his passion for rare manuscripts.
Karpeles said that disclosing how much he makes or spends detracts
from his museums. But he offered this clue:
“In California, if you own four homes you’re
a millionaire. I’ve owned about 300 — though I had financing.
Karpeles said that as he drove through Duluth
last summer he was impressed to see how much the city had improved
its waterfront and preserved its historic buildings.
Driving down East First Street, he saw a “for
sale” sign on the First Church of Christ Scientist, an old,
proud-looking square structure of sand-colored brick, across from
St, Luke’s Hospital.
Eight months later, after Karpeles reportedly
paid $175,000 cash for the church and another $100,000 to renovate
it, the newest Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum opened. It joined
the ranks of five other Karpeles museums, in Montecito, Calif.;
Santa Barbara, Calif.; New York City; Tacoma, Wash, and Jacksonville,
The museums collectively cost about $500,000 per
year to run, Karpeles estimated. None charges admission, and each
displays 25 rare documents at a time, from Karpeles’s collection
of about 1 million documents, which he says is much larger than
any other private collection in the world.
At each museum Karpeles employs a director, a
curator and small staff, whose assignments include presenting programs
about the documents at local schools.
Karpeles writes descriptions of the documents
for the school programs; he said that gives him the opportunity
to teach, something he might have done as a younger man if he hadn’t
been so busy living the American dream.
Buying houses, documents
When Karpeles was 6, his parents moved the family
to Duluth from California, to be farther away from a possible attack
by Japan during World War II. His father drove a Duluth city bus.
After graduating from Denfeld, Karpeles earned
a bachelor’s degree at University of Minnesota Duluth and
worked on a master’s degree in mathematics at the university’s
Twin Cities campus. There he met his future wife, Marsha, who was
from St. Paul. And he went to work for Remington Rand Univac, which
transferred the new family to California.
There, in his spare time, Karpeles finished his
master’s degree and coursework for a Ph.D. Meanwhile, to earn
extra money, he bought a house to rent out.
“I wanted to teach, but the available jobs
were underpaid,” said Karpeles. “But I paid attention
to what was going on in the schools, and I could see this huge bulge
of children moving through the school system. They were the baby
boomers, of course, and I realized that when they reached their
early 20s they would be in the market for houses.
“So, I kept buying houses,” he said.
“Soon I had so many I didn’t have time to do anything
In the late 1970s, Karpeles, with his wife and
children (they have four) visited a museum and viewed a collection
of old manuscripts and documents. Karpeles said he was fascinated,
both by the documents and their effect on his teenaged children.
“They had moped around the museum that day,
totally disinterested, until they saw some of the documents,”
he said. “All of a sudden my daughter was saying, ‘Hey,
Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting is just like mine,’ and
my son said, ‘Hey, Albert Einstein crossed out words, just
like I do.’ I thought, ‘My God, is it that simple —
just show them the originals?’”
The investor and collector in Karpeles were intrigued;
the teacher in him was turning backflips. “We started buying
documents with a vengeance,” he said.
His first major purchase, in 1978, was the original
manuscript of the book “Prisoner of Zelda” by Anthony
Hope Hawkins. Soon Karpeles was hooked.
“When I look at an original manuscript,”
he said. “I can visualize these heroes of the past as they
wrote it, and I can see their thought processes, through their corrections
or notes in the margins. I can understand them better, and by understanding
them, I have a better understanding of the world itself.”
He doesn’t talk about the prices he pays
or the worth of his collection, though he has said that several
of his documents, including an early proposed draft of the Bill
of Rights, might fetch millions in today’s market.
News accounts of specific auctions say that in
1988 he paid $22,000 for a letter from California pioneer John Sutter
describing the discovery of gold on his property, and that he paid
$38,000 in 1990 for a letter written in 1787 by Ethan Allen, a soldier
who led the Green Mountain Boys in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga
during the American Revolution.
Karpeles has writings ranging from hieroglyphics
on sandstone to Germany’s surrender agreements at the close
of World War II. He has original music written by Mozart, Beethoven,
Wagner and Stravinsky, to name a few.
His favorite document, he said, is Pope Lucius
III’s Proclamation of the Sacred Duties of the Knights of
the Holy Crusades, signed in 1183. “It’s almost impossible
to find something that old and that important, and still intact,”
In addition to sharing some of the husband’s
passion for manuscripts, Marsha Karpeles helps oversee the museums,
acting as director of curators and coordinating grand openings and
special shows. Their son Jason is director of the museum in Tacoma,
and daughter Cheryl Alleman serves that function in Jacksonville.
The family wants the collection to be seen.
“Once, they announced that someone had taken
a big painting from the Louvre,” said David Karpeles. “I
couldn’t understand why. What thrill could a person get from
possessing a painting they couldn’t share with anyone? The
Mona Lisa, locked in one person’s basement, would have no
Open manuscript market
To many, Karpeles’ story may raise a question:
Why are so many important historic papers traded on the open market
instead of held in government museums?
One answer is that the National Archives was not
created until 1934, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the agency,
which houses 4 billion documents in its Washington D.C., repository.
And until only recently, she said, presidential
papers were the property of the president who generated them. “The
president could give them to whomever he wanted, or even burn them,”
she said. Hence, many ended up in private hands or university libraries
In recent decades, the value of many historic
documents has increased rapidly, pricing most public museums and
libraries, including the Library of Congress, out of the market,
experts say. But museum curators say that’s not necessarily
“We must remind ourselves that many of our
great institutional collections were created by private collectors,”
said John Rhodehamel, curator of American History at the Huntington
Museum and Library in San Marino, Calif., home to one of the nation’s
most important collection’s of papers.
“One of the things collectors seem to do
well is preserve documents,” said Gerald Gewalt, manuscript
historian for the Library of Congress. “Some had been kept
under less than salutary conditions. Most collectors take excellent
care of them, and they usually end up back out on the market.”
Experts estimate that 2,500 to 12,000 people nationwide
collect rare documents. But most agree that only a dozen or so worldwide
are amassing large collections of important work. They also agree
that Karpeles’ collection is one of the largest.
“Very few people out there collect on his
scale,” said Leslie Kress, sales director for the Kenneth
Rendell manuscript dealership of Boston, one of the country’s
top manuscript dealers. “He has great taste and his collection
reflects that, and I don’t know of anyone else who shares
their private collection with as much generosity as he does.”
Sharing bridges to the past
Karpeles opened his first museum in Montecito,
Calif., in 1983. His collection grew, and more museums followed.
He said he picked smaller cities for most of them because most large
cities already have enough cultural attractions.
Those documents not on display in the museums
are stored in cool, dark, humidity-controlled vaults in Santa Barbara.
Each museum also contains a fireproof vault, where the documents
are stored at night.
Karpeles now possesses a million documents, but
he is not satisfied. He wants enough, he said, so that he can comply
with most requests from teachers, scholars or historians, to see
important original documents from virtually any area of knowledge.
And he’s made arrangements to maintain public access to the
collection following his death.
He’s convinced, he said, that these brittle
paper bridges to the past hold some of the secrets to a better future.
“Those of us who search for (life’s)
meaning must share the answers we have,” he said. “Seeing
the writings of our predecessors — their mistakes, their creativeness,
their failures and successes — may be one such answer. If
viewing these does restore a sense of purpose to a few children,
then it is a good answer.”