So very rarely does it happen that someone thinks they have an exceptionally valuable book and it turns out to be true. A gentleman called about a book signed by Matisse. When he brought it in, I discovered he hadn’t mentioned it was also signed by James Joyce. It was a beautiful 1935 folio-sized edition of Ulysses with illustrations by Henri Matisse, the crown jewel of the Limited Editions Club catalogue. They printed many other nice books signed by their illustrators, but none with quite this much cachet. The man who had it was settling an estate, and inclined to accept a NY dealer’s offer of $10k. That dealer probably has a buyer willing to pay $15k or more. The only thing as rare as books that valuable are buyers for them. Well, it was fun to see, anyway.
An interesting contrast passed through our store the following week. It was an elephant folio, supersized 1975 Moby Dick illustrated and signed by Leroy Neiman, with a preface signed by Jacques Cousteau…which, for me, was all too much of not quite good enough things. It takes a lot to live up to Melville. And, with all due respect, the Cousteau signature was just a bit silly perhaps. It was a book that could be said to be worth a few hundred dollars, but I’d rather not be the one saying it.
Today I saw a book which is haunting and perplexing me. An older lady, a longtime collector, brought in an 1850 edition of Jane Eyre. Its original brown cloth embossed covers were faded, worn, and detached, held on by transparent tape; the spine was illegible; the endpapers, a cheap, waxy yellow paper, were blackened; the pages were foxed and wavy; the text block was warped; a 1928 owner inscription in India ink (“this book belonged to my aunt and I inherited it”) had bled through to the subsequent page. The title page read: Jane Eyre/ an autobiography/ edited by/ Currer Bell.
Of all these particulars, the most wonderful is that title page– there is Charlotte Bronte before we knew her name, in the wake of the first and greatest Bronte novel’s sensational popularity after its 1847 British publication and 1848 American first edition. The poor condition of the copy I saw was because it was a hasty, cheap trade publication (or pirate) with inferior paper and barely adequate cloth; and it was probably read many times. This could be rebound, but having that done properly would be fabulously expensive, and would entail painstaking disassembly and reassembly that the mediocre paper would not withstand without, at best, becoming harder to open and difficult to read, while losing the authenticity of its original covers. So would that be a further insult, or a necesssay evil? The book is at risk of being thrown away because at a glance it looks like junk. These very early editions are so uncommon because most of them did get used up and thrown away.
The owner’s speculation about its dollar value and mine varied so greatly that I didn’t make an offer for it, and advised her to keep it. It’s the worst part of my job, those mercurial dollar values. That title page– bliss. How much that’s worth and how much it costs, I don’t even enjoy putting in the same sentence.
Visit, if you can, the enchanting exhibit at the DAAP gallery (’til Feb. 16) of the work of Cincinnati artist Charley Harper (1922-2007). It introduced me to the little “Ford Times” magazine I’d somehow never seen before. Harper’s charming illustrations were in many issues in the 1950s. One of our favorite customers brought us a couple of copies.
Maybe one day the January 1951 Look magazine with his weather map will turn up. The serendipities in my work are a neverending delight. Books and pictures are more important to me than the dollars they’re “worth.” I wouldn’t be in this business otherwise. Dollars are the dullest part of value. I hope that isn’t the epitaph of the used book trade!
From "Wie das kind sein soll" circa 1890s
Chromolithography was state of the art color printing in the late 1800s. It made fine art prints available to the middle class. The inks are still rich and bright a hundred years later.
These unexpectedly vivid illustrations show up in otherwise unremarkable children’s books. They are a delightful surprise inside dingy covers, the color pictures on better paper interleaved with acid-tanned text pages.
Here are some from a book of nursery rhymes, 1900, about 5×7 inches:
Beware the book club dust jacket placed on a collectible 20th century book. The book club edition jackets had the same cover art. You can spot one by noticing there is no original price printed on the upper corner of the front flap. If that part has been clipped off, it may have been to remove a price, or to obscure the absence of one.
Some of you know what book this front flap belongs to:
Old djs have the charm of their times. Once they’ve survived a few decades, they deserve some respect.
But before dust jackets were common, books could look like these (among hundreds we have here), circa 1890s-1910s:
See “Shelf Life” by James Wood in the Nov 7 New Yorker for a glimpse of one thing that’s true in this day: it’s hard to find a new home for thousands of intelligent old books; and one thing that’s been true always, hard to take though some find it: a collection is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
Wood tried to dispose of his deceased father-in-law’s good history books with the respect they were due. He found a university uninterested, a library that only wanted newer books, a bookstore that had no money, a bookstore that had no space, and eventually a couple of buyers who chose to acquire only some of the volumes.
Many people with a collection to sell want it to stay together, and believe it is more valuable and attractive together. But the pleasure is in the collecting. A book collection’s owner is its glue. Owner gone, collection over, books dispersed to other fates– am I the only one who doesn’t think that’s sad? All ownership is temporary.
“I have a rare Where’s Waldo book with no Waldo in it. It must be a misprint. Is this valuable?”
“It’s in pretty good condition except the front and back covers have come off.”
“I have an old Christmas Carol signed ‘your friend, Charles Dickens.’ It’s from 1906.”
“Can you give me a list of all the books you don’t want to buy?”