ATLANTA --After years of trying to sell the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s archives to a library or university, the King family will instead put them up for auction on June 30, Sotheby's announced yesterday.
The sale, expected to bring $15 million to $30 million, will take place exactly five months after the death of Coretta Scott King, King's widow, who was keenly interested in finding an institutional home for the papers.
The buyer will determine the future accessibility of the papers. Many were housed for years in the archives of the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta, but the papers considered the most interesting by scholars, including a trove of handwritten sermons, were found in Coretta Scott King's basement and have not been widely studied.
"I'm really on tenterhooks about it," said Taylor Branch, the author of a three-volume biography of King. "Because it'll wind up in a library or it'll wind up dispersed."
David N. Redden, the vice chairman of Sotheby's, said the papers would be sold as a single lot to help ensure that they find a public home. "It really is a challenge to the institutions of America to muster up and buy it," he said.
Before her death, Coretta Scott King had tried in vain to sell the papers, first to the Library of Congress for $20 million, then to a variety of other institutions, Redden said. The Library of Congress sale fell through when lawmakers raised questions about the price. The papers were appraised at $30 million by Sotheby's in the late 1990s.
They include 7,000 items in King's own hand, including a draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, an annotated copy of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and a program from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on which King scribbled notes for a speech about John F. Kennedy's assassination. A blue spiral notebook contains a statement read to an Atlanta judge about why King chose to stay in jail after his arrest during a sit-in and a note to the women arrested with him praising them for their faith in nonviolent methods, according to a news release from Sotheby's.
Also among the papers are letters and telegrams from presidents and civil rights leaders, an exam "blue book" from Morehouse College containing what is described as King's earliest surviving theological writing, and a collection of books with his handwritten scribbles and critiques.
The handwritten sermons and a collection of index cards reveal a less familiar side of King, that of clergyman and pastor to a congregation, said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. "What we can see from those kinds of materials is the way in which his religious identity shaped his identity as a civil rights leader," Carson said.
There is also a collection of ephemera, including flight coupons, receipts and even the deposit slip for the check from the Nobel Foundation, Redden said.
Redden said he had been through much of the collection with Coretta Scott King before her death and that she had only to glance at a document to recall the circumstances of its creation.
Archivists and historians agreed that the collection was highly coveted. But some said the price was far out of reach.
"I would be stunned if they could command that sort of price, and I would be even more stunned if they command that from a library," said Brian Schottlaender, president of the Association of Research Libraries. But, he added, "How do you value the Martin Luther King papers? ... He was such a significant figure."
Kathleen Bethel, the African-American studies librarian at Northwestern University, agreed that King was, even compared to other civil rights leaders, a giant. But only the oldest and wealthiest institutions might hope to buy the papers, she said, and there was no obvious "angel" who might step forward to donate the money.
"No one comes to mind," she said.
Redden countered that the papers were worth far more than $15 million, the low end of the expected range. For comparison, he said, some 450 pages of manuscripts by James Joyce had been sold two years ago to an Irish library for more than $11 million.
The papers are owned by the King estate, not the King Center, a struggling nonprofit founded by Coretta Scott King that has received federal money over the years to catalog the papers and make them available to scholars. The King Center houses the papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped to found.
Another group of about 83,000 documents - a third of King's personal letters and manuscripts - were donated to Boston University by King in 1964. Coretta Scott King tried unsuccessfully to get them back.
None of the four King children responded to requests for comment on the sale. Since the death of their mother, they have also explored the idea of selling the King Center to the National Park Service, which administers the historic district that includes the center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the birth home of King.