Category: NYC Rare Books

February 18, 2017

Value of an Old Vellum Manuscript

I have had numerous enquiries over the years to evaluate and appraise old manuscripts.  Certainly, I come across my fair share of antiphonals, graduals and choir books  that once graced innumerable churches in Spain, Italy and Europe.  Given their large size, the incredibly resilient  vellum upon which they were written, and perhaps the respect (not always) accorded to obviously religious books, a lot have survived.

The value of such a manuscript is quite complicated and here I cannot of course go into all the particulars regarding the age, style of decoration, illuminations etc. that factor into their value.  As an illustration, below is a recent one that passed through my hands- a rather elegant late 15th to 16th century Spanish antiphonal.  It was almost complete with a large number  pages (234 in total), albeit at some point,  as is often the case, the finest pages were likely removed as specimens of the illuminated art.  Still, many very attractive pen-work initials survived  in Mudejar style that reflect the artwork of the  individual Moors or Muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Iberia after the Christian Reconquista.

One thing that I do not do is appraise these manuscripts as the value of an average individual page multiplied by the number of pages.   These are what I consider “book breaker” calculations and it is not something that I even consider.   Many beautiful books have been broken over the years for their plates as well as fine atlases dismembered for their individual framable maps.  Thankfully, given the economics of the trade, this has become less of an issue as complete preserved copies are often worth more as a whole than the some of their parts.  However, I do find the practice continues with antiphonal and liturgical manuscripts and the economics of selling individual pages at modest prices still favors tearing such books apart.

I will write here a bit of bibliophilic heresy (I know brace yourself!)  because while I do not condone the practice of breaking these manuscripts or evaluate them on that basis,  I do not condemn it either.   Many of these manuscripts are incomplete, and single examples (given the large surviving numbers) generally do not have singular importance in terms of what they add to our cultural or historical understanding of the period.  Also, in times past, dealers like Otto Ege, who made a controversial practice of dismantling medieval  manuscripts and selling the pages individually, also served the interest of scholarship in having some examples (even fragments) dispersed to many universities and a wider audience of students.  Therefore, I cannot say today, given the seemingly widespread lack of interest in objects of culture in general, that something  is not gained by having individual vellum leaves from such manuscripts grace ordinary living room walls.

 

 

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December 27, 2016

A Rare 18th century American Book – Its value and educational value

Lord Chesterfield’s Letters were not originally intended for publication.  Four hundred letters survived his son’s early death in 1768, and thankfully for  literature and posterity, were published in 1768 by the son’s widow.   The work became famous as a complete education manual of the 18th century, albeit the great Samuel Jonson did deride it for teaching the “”the morals of a whore”

The edition pictured here  – the first American- was published in 1789 in Philadelphia. It appears to be a great rarity with only three known copies listed  Worldcat and one at the American Antiquarian Society.  There are also no records in ABPC or Rare Book Hub or copies at auction in many decades.

It got me to ponder what was the first American published manual of education.  That honor probably goes to the New England Primer,  a textbook used by students in New England and in other English settlements in North America that was first printed in Boston in 1690.  With that said,  the famous Primer was religious in nature and followed a tradition of combining the study of the alphabet with Bible reading.

The present volume as an educational work is entirely different and is rightfully a guide to conduct and values in every practical sense.  Take the chapter on “Prejudice” which contains valid advice for even our internet age of highly partisan and fake news: “Never adopt  the notions of any books you may read, or of any company you may keep, without examining whether they are just or not, or you will otherwise be liable to be hurried away by prejudices, instead of being guided by reason; and quietly cherish error instead of seeking the truth.”

I try to make it a habit of valuing books on this blog and this book presents a particular challenge.  It is certainly a pleasing copy in many respects, retaining the original binding with charmingly scratched initials of its early owner.  It also has some early handwritten provenance on its paste-downs.  Most unfortunately it is missing one leaf, ripped from the text block in the chapter on Lying.  Sadly, Chesterfield issues no admonishment or warning of the derived opprobrium for tearing out a page from a book!

A missing page can often be a fatal flaw in the antiquarian book world, but I am informed by Chesterfield to focus on virtues and not flaws.  As such, given it charm and rarity, I would still value the work at $1000 at least.

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June 24, 2016

Value of an Incunable – What’s the Real Biel?

With a specialty in early printed books, we are often sent rare books to evaluate.  One learns in life quickly enough (even as a toddler) to be suspicious of what we are told, and this carries through to the rare book trade – especially with regards to boxes, labels, and especially old bookseller descriptions.

This fine folio was handsomely presented in a protective cloth box with a morocco label proudly announcing “Biel Collectorium 1495.”  That would make the book an “incunable” – a book printed in the earliest days of printing before 1500.  Any book that can rightfully be called an incunable has a certain cachet in the world of rare book collectors and often warrants a high price or premium  just for being that old.  Indeed, one rarely sees an incunable for less than a few thousand dollars except perhaps in a poor or incomplete state.

It is difficult in this case to place blame for the incorrect identification on the previous owner.   Sometimes, attempts are made to deceive or inflate value, but this misidentification might more rightly be based on a reliance old bibliographical records that had recorded this seemingly undated book as being printed in 1495.  Even Worldcat.com still lists a copy still with the date.

In fact, we can with a little research quickly discover that this book is referenced  by the standard works on  early printed books including  Adams B1999; Hain-Copinger 3187; ISTC ib00653000.  All of them state that the book was printed in Tübingen y  Johann Otmar for Friedrich Meynberger, after 23 April 1501.

Well, what is the difference between a book printed in 1501 and one printed in 1499?  –  a lot actually even if it is only  buyer’s psychology. The paper is the same rag paper as they used only two years early and for all intents and purposes little changed in the printing world technologically in those two years to justify any difference in reverence or price. Nevertheless, this is a “post-incunable” and as such it just does not have the added prestige of being officially one of the first printed books that collectors covet.   It is disappointingly not a “fifteener” as some old time booksellers used to say.

Further hurting the value of this book is that it is only volumes three & four of a four volume set.   Thus despite its handsome and mostly original blind-stamped binding, its attractive printing and rubrication, and it being a  work Gabriel Biel, one of the most  distinguished theologians of the late Middle Ages, it nevertheless is worth less than $1000 at auction.

 

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May 5, 2016

16th century Illustrated Post Incunable Book Appraisal

This is a rather delighted early book we recently purchased directly out of an old estate library in New Jersey where it must have languished in the basement for several decades.  Yes, we do work hard buying libraries and estates nationally – digging with a lot of boots, masks, and gloves, to uncover hidden treasures.

The book is what is known as a post-incunable which usually refers to a book printed between 1500 and before 1530-1540- not quite the infancy of printing but a time of great experimentation and improvement.

What struck me as immediately interesting- and something I have not seen ever before- is an early drawing on the cover which strongly resembles a bookbinding.   I presume it also could be some geometric representation of a ceiling or other doodle, but given its proximity to the clasp it surely gives the impression of a drawing of a bookbinding.

The book itself is a 1520 illustrated edition of Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines) – a compilation of poems about aggrieved heroines in mythology and the heroic lovers that have mistreated, neglected or abandoned them.   Ovid apparently considered this suitable reading material to his assumed audience of Roman women – the ‘chick lit’ of its day – albeit I wouldn’t go so far to call this elegiac, erotic poetry the ‘1520 Shades of Grey’.

In terms of value, the book has a lot of appeal.  Generally illustrated post incunabula are highly collectible these days – and the illustrations present here are unusual and often depict women (the heroines) composing  letters and writing with some nice anachronistic Renaissance furniture  touches.  The blocks were re-used in earlier editions and probably originated from the workshop associated with the Malermi Bible.

The book suffers from some condition isssues- worming to the wooden boards and some loss, detachment of the text block, and some internal staining.  Nevertheless, it  very rare in commerce; a copy on RareBookHub shows a copy sold in 2006 for 1150 Euros.  Given that that  copy was in a less attractive later vellum binding and accounting for the passage of a decade and the rather curious drawing on the original wooden boards in the present copy, I would place its auction value closer to $2000.

 

 

The full description is here:

[POST INCUNABLE] [OVID] Epistolae heroides Ouidij diligẽti castigatione excultae: aptissimisq[ue] figuris ornatae: cõmentãtibus Antonio Uolsco: Ubertino Crescentinate: & A. Jano Parrhasio: necnõ Jodoco Badio Ascẽsio: in Ibin vero Domitio Calderino: Christophoro Zaroto & Ascẽsio …[Venice], [1520]. FOLIO.  12 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches.
COMPLETE. 6 preliminary leaves, cviii lvs.   Colophon: Venetiis per Georgiũ de Rusconibus. Anno dñi. M.D. XX. die. 27. mensis septemb. [printer’s mark].  Title within ornamental border; the 23 woodcut illus. several of the blocks are signed “L.”   Text bordered by commentary remarkably the text itself is relegated to a small frame of only on average 4 x 3 inches and surrounded buy a much larger 10 x 7 inches gloss visually emphasizing the important of the commentary.  Internally, some damp staining and toning or occasional white molding affecting some leaves.  Binding: worming to wooden boards, text block cleanly separated form boards, later vellum spine, evidence of clasp, minor corner loss to one board.  VERY RARE IN COMMERCE.  WORLDCAT NOTES ONLY 1 COPY.     Binding with two contemporary DRAWINGS of apparent bookbindings (one simple sketch to front cover) and a more elaborate design to rear cover.

“A critical text of the Heroides, surrounded by the notes of the outstanding Renaissance commentators. In addition to the letters, this edition has also the text to ‘In Ibin’, and the Vita Ovidii, by Antonius Volscus. The woodcut illustrations have a charm of their own. Most of them appear as panels in three parts, and many of them are genre scenes, unusual in the book illustration of the era, but in character with the contents of the book. Many of them illustrate women writing; almost all the different scenes show imagination and a certain technical skill. The title comes with an ornamental woodcut frame; another frame showing putti and mythological figures, adorns the first page of text. The origin of the woodcuts is Venice, and most of them seem to have been used in the edition of the Heroides which Tacuinus brought out in 1501. Sander 5279. who mentions only one other copy, in the Biblioteca Estense, in Modena. -A few stains, and some wormholes in the back part of the book.”  [Ref: William Salloch]

 

 

 

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February 14, 2016

Value of an Old and Rare Medical Book – More Bark than Bite

As a New York City rare book dealer, I get a constant stream of calls from around Manhattan.  It seems that the apartments here, while not overflowing, still are able to produce a constant flow of interesting and rare material.  I just today purchased this interesting 17th century medical work from a local picker.

The Book:

Richard Morton.  Pyretologia, seu, Exercitationes de morbis universalibus acutis Londoni : Impensis Samuelis Smith …, CIC DC XCII [1692]  8vo, 19.5 cm.,   [80], 430, [18] pages, [2] folded leaves of plates (present but loose)  Binding: 17th century English calf, wear to head and foot of pine and starting of front joint; internal;t some toning, still a pleasing copy of a rare 17th century English medical work.  Ref: Wing M2832; NOT in Garrison-Morton or Waller.

So, how much is this old book worth?

This is the type of work that I really enjoy buying – a scarce and attractive 17th century work that is not fully appreciated by the auction records.  Indeed, while it is uncommon in commerce, in 2000 a copy at Swann Galleries barely made $230- a rather trifling sum for such an interesting work.   It is quite unfortunate, that with the transparency and widespread availability of auction records,  a poor sales record for even a single copy can often set a unfair ceiling on what many collectors will pay- a sort of Scarlet A[uction record] that hangs on the neck of the book.  Nevertheless, a modest profit on this type of work can be made when properly cataloged and offered to the right appreciative collector or Institutional library.

Indeed, this is a fascinating work. The author, Richard Morton (1637–1698), was an English physician “who was the first to state that tubercles were always present in the tuberculosis disease of the lungs.” according to the oft quoted Wikipedia.   Digging deeper, however, into this modest  book on fevers,  Morton presents himself as a firm advocate of Peruvian bark as an antidote, proclaiming its “Herculean” properties to cure fever.  While not understood at the time, the reason was that the compound quinine occurs naturally in the bark of Cinchona trees.

Of even greater historical but related interest are Morton’s remarks on the sudden death of Oliver Cromwell, who died of an intermittent fever as his physicians  (in Morton’s view) were too timid to make use of the bark.  What would have happened had Cromwell not have died, passing his reigns to his ineffective son Richard who failed in his attempt to carry on his father’s role as leader of the Commonwealth.  Only nine months later, the Monarchy was restored.  Just imagine how a little bit of tree bark could have changed the course of human history!

 

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