Denfeld News

June 19, 1994
Minneapolis Star Tribune

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, Fla.

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 else.”

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.

Discovering gold

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,” he said.

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 value.”

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 or museums.

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 bad.

“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.”

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