Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participates in a discussion during the Library of Congress National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday, August 31, 2019.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s expansive personal library sold at auction Thursday for a jaw-dropping $2.35 million, including a single book that sold for over $100,000.
The auction of more than 1,000 of Ginsburg’s books and other memorabilia generated bids “beyond our wildest dreams,” said Catherine Williamson, specialist of fine books and manuscripts at auction-house Bonhams, which sold the collection.
Williamson said in a phone interview that she had thought the whole auction would total between $300,000 to $500,000. But the sum of all final bids totaled $2,354,510, she told CNBC after the auction ended.
The online auction kicked off last week and ended Thursday afternoon, the same day that sitting Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will step down from the bench.
Bidding on virtually all of the lots vastly exceeded Bonhams’ estimates, which were deliberately conservative because few of Ginsburg’s items had previously come up for auction. But the late justice’s unlikely celebrity in her later years brought a flood of attention and bidding interest from potential buyers much younger than Bonhams’ regular crowd of book collectors, Williamson said.
The top-selling book: Ginsburg’s copy of the 1957-58 Harvard Law Review, which fetched a whopping $100,312.50.
The legal tome from Ginsburg’s time at Harvard is scrawled with her handwritten annotations in the margins. The book’s spine features “Ruth B. Ginsburg” lettered in gilt.
Every one of the available lots — 166 were listed — sold in the auction, a success known as a “white glove” sale, Williamson said. “Those don’t happen very often!” she noted in an email.
Other high-dollar lots included Ginsburg’s personal copy of her own collected writings and speeches — a book bound specially for her by Simon and Schuster, according to Bonhams — which sold for over $81,000.
A signed copy of “My Life on the Road,” the memoir of leading feminist activist Gloria Steinem, sold for nearly $53,000. “To dearest Ruth — who paved the road for us all — with a lifetime of gratitude — Gloria,” Steinem handwrote in Ginsburg’s copy.
Ginsburg’s status as a trailblazer for women and a liberal stalwart garnered her a progressive following that transcended the judicial sphere. By the time of her death in late 2020 at age 87, Ginsburg had become a pop-culture icon.
Her library reflects it. Beyond the dense law textbooks, literary classics and memoirs warmly inscribed by her fellow high-court justices, the collection includes items such as sheet music for “I’ll Fight,” the theme song of a 2018 documentary on Ginsburg. It sold for over $35,000. Both the song and the film were nominated for Academy Awards in 2019.
Also in the collection was a copy of “The RBG Workout,” featuring a fawning inscription by author Bryant Johnson, Ginsburg’s longtime personal trainer.
“You have made a difference with me, and I hope to pass that on to everyone I can. You will always be a ‘Super Diva,’” Johnson wrote in the book, which was withdrawn from the auction.
The library also included multiple signed books by Breyer, a longtime colleague of Ginsburg’s who said he intends to retire by the end of the court’s current term around late June.
“To Ruth, my friend and colleague, with admiration and affection, Stephen,” read Breyer’s inscription to Ginsburg in a copy of his 2005 book “Active Liberty,” which sold for nearly $18,000.