Otto Penzler's lifelong passion for mystery fiction began with "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" by Arthur Conan Doyle.
With little competition in the early days, he began uncovering first-edition copies of detective fiction by scouring dozens of shops across New York City's 4th Avenue "booksellers' row." His collection of detective fiction was an addicting, yet affordable pursuit, and clearly ahead of its time.
"It was easy to find a half dozen first editions in collectable condition within my five-dollar-a-week budget," Penzler said. "My primary drive was buying a book in the mystery world that I could afford. It was the pure joy of collecting."
Now a giant of the New York literary scene, Penzler is opening his personal library to fellow collectors for the first time in 55 years. The Otto Penzler Collection of Mystery Fiction, Part 1, debuts in Heritage Auctions
' Rare Books Auction March 6 in New York.
After devouring work by authors Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, it was Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett who convinced the young collector that crime fiction could be elevated to a place of parity with the best of American literature.
Penzler opened the Mysterious Bookshop in midtown Manhattan in 1979, a business that supplied like-minded fiction fans as well as his growing and enviable collection.
"Every first edition that came into the store was compared against my personal copy," Penzler said. "It was where I researched every week. I upgraded books constantly, being obsessed with having the best possible copy, as well as checking for variants, which I thought important for bibliographical purposes." After decades of finding new titles, and upgrading the ones he already had, he needed to build a massive library attached to his medium-size home, a bibliophile's palace.
The investment paid off: Penzler's 1929 first edition copy of Hammett's "Red Harvest" may sell for at least $60,000, and a first edition of "The Big Sleep," signed by Chandler himself, may sell for more than $30,000.
A remarkable copy of "The Maltese Falcon", a high spot of the hard-boiled canon and Hammett's first book to feature Sam Spade, also may sell north of $30,000.
"We believe this to be the best and most comprehensive collection in this genre ever assembled," said Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions. "This auction is only the first in an ongoing series of auctions over the next two years that will showcase to the world Otto's unprecedented collection."
The initial offering includes 231 lots, including rare volumes such as the 1845 first edition, first printing of "Tales" by Edgar Allan Poe and James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," a coveted 1934 first edition association copy, inscribed by the author. The entire collection on offer March 6 is now open for preview and bidding.
Part 2 of The Otto Penzler Collection of Mystery Fiction auction is Sept. 5 in New York, with a strong emphasis on British authors.