Category: selling rare books

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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posted in: NYC Rare Book Dealer, NYC Rare Books, RARE BOOK APPRAISAL, sell rare books, selling rare books, We Buy Manuscripts, We buy old books, We buy Rare Books

January 14, 2016

Selling Rare Books- the value of a 17th century Music Book

I was recently offered this handsome and rare specimen of liturgical printing.  Such books are often typographical masterpieces and are important in the history of printing and well as the history of music.   This Gradual contains all of the musical items in the Mass and was printed in 1681 for the Royal Abbey of Montmartre.

The Abbey of Montmartre was a important center of intense religious life and a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and this Gradual in many ways served as  a focal point of services and that devotion.  Interestingly, in the early 17th century an ancient crypt and staircase was discovered  at the Abbey that was said to have been sanctified by Saint Denis and caused a sensation with Marie de Médicis and 60,000 people visiting.  The Abbey was sadly torn from the waiting hands of posterity when it was destroyed in the French Revolution.

The Gradual itself is very rare with Worldcat listing only the copy at the Lyon Public Library (Bibliothèque jésuite des Fontaines).  Additionally, there are few comparables in the auction records and no copy of this Gradual is listed in the rare book auction databases (ABPC or RareBookHub) for over 30 years.

So, what is at the value of a very rare and beautifully printed specimen of 17th century music printing worth?   With no exact comparables in the records, a rare book dealer must rest his opinion solely on experience and connoisseurship.  As such, I would look to  the prices I have obtained for other 17th century Graduals of lesser rarity and interest perhaps, but similar typography and age. I must also evaluate the condition and while the example here is internally in admirable shape, the binding is a bit later (18th century from its general appearance and marbled paste-downs) with the mottled calf a bit dry and the spine and hinges worn from use.

As such, I would place its retail value at approximately $1200.

The Book:

Graduel romain-monastique de l’abbaye de Mont-Martre, ordre de S. Benoist. S.l. : s.n., 1681  4to., 24.5 x 19 cm.   18th century calf with wear, wear to hinges and and spine as depicted, hinges held by binding strings, some creasing to preliminary leaves, some light toning, but generally a very good copy copy of a Very Rare gradual and a superb typographic specimen.  No copies appear in the standard rare book auction databases for more than 30 years,

 

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Rare Book Auction - the Value of a 17th century Music Book

posted in: NYC Rare Book Dealer, RARE BOOK APPRAISAL, selling rare books, We buy Rare Books

March 18, 2015

Is an Incomplete Rare Book Still Valuable?

Many times I am asked to value a rare book and am forced to gently explain to the owner (who may have seen a complete copy online or at auction at a high price) that an incomplete copy is worth a very small fraction of the value of a complete work.  The expectation is often that if a book is just missing a page or two, then the price would be affected somewhat,  but still within reason.   More often than not, that is not the case however and the price is actually drastically affected.   Part of the reason no doubt is that while many collectors buy rare books of interest to them, they do keep an eye as well on their investment potential and future resale value.   Buying rare books is one thing and selling rare books is another.   It is often very hard to get future buyers to pay thousands of dollars for a book- even a very rare one-  that is described in an apologetic tone with words such a “lacking” or “missing” or  “wanting” (the preferred marketing euphemism of booksellers).

Nevertheless there are always exceptions to the rule, and sellers and owners are advised to consult a rare book expert even if their work is incomplete.

A couple weeks ago I was offered an incomplete book- a 1563 first edition of Foxe’s  Book of Martyrs- or the  Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church.  This was one of the most influential books of the 16th century, published early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Here are a couple photos of the large thick folio- a testament to one of the most  complex printings of the period.

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It can immediately be seen when opening the book that it lacking the title page- indeed a closer inspection and study reveals that it is actually lacking  the title, frontispiece, and  last leaf.   It is equally true that despite their age most books of the 16th century, if found in a similar state,  only fetch modest prices at auction.

This is not the case for Foxe’s  Book of Martyrs however.   A search of the ABPC auction database as well as the RareBookHub indicate that there have not been any complete copies sold at auction in the last 30 years of records. In fact, as one searches further back in time, it s clear that the popular book was often read to death and complete copies are virtually unheard of in commerce.  As far back as  1907, a rare book catalogue found in Google Books offers an imperfect copy for 80 sterling and adds to justify the price that  “no absolutely perfect copy is known.”  That may be an exaggeration or marketing ploy of an eager turn of the century bookseller, but it nevertheless indicates how rare complete copies are.  As such, despite its imperfect state, the book remains both valuable and highly desirable.

In any case, an incomplete work is better than a non-existent copy.  The woodcut below, inserted at p. 1548 in Foxe’s Book,  shows the fate that befell many books including being burned in a pyre.  We have to be thankful that some works survived at all and, like many things in life, learn to  forgive and be tolerant of imperfections.
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posted in: RARE BOOK APPRAISAL, sell rare books, selling rare books, We buy old books, We buy Rare Books

March 16, 2015

Selling Rare Books in Poor Condition – Worms, Rats, Floods & Fire

“Condition, condition, condition!”  That is often the phrase I hear antiquarian booksellers use as a warning to collectors- an echo of the most important thing to remember in real estate: “location, location, location!”

This, it must be said, is generally true.  Condition does have an important effect on the value of rare books- and often to degree that makes little sense to anyone with a rational understanding of the ravages of time or an appreciation of history.  Yes, if a copy of a modern first edition lacks its dust jacket, and there are an abundance of other freshly printed copies, there is little excuse not to buy a fine copy and consequently, any that do not measure up can be expected to be worth a mere fraction.

Should this be true, however, for antiquarian books that have travelled continents, passed through endless hands, been poured over in dim evening light next to irregularly melting candles, hid themselves in corners and basements from the horrors of war, and have borne witness to revolutions and peace? (remember what adaptable survivors books are the next time someone asks if books can survive the Kindle).

First, condition should be evaluated by a professional bookseller.  Do not assume just because your book looks in poor condition that it is in poor condition. There have been many instances when someone has sent me a book described as “worn and shoddy, or in poor condition” only to see that they are describing a book in the rare publisher’s cloth boards or a modest early 18th century American tree bark binding of great collectible value.  Additionally, certain titles and books – if they are rare enough- have to be compared with the number of surviving copies and the state and condition of those copies.  I have had books that are “incomplete”- perhaps the most damaging adjective to a book’s monetary value- only to have discovered that it is the most complete and best surviving copy (and have then priced it accordingly!)

I am one of those dealers that does NOT obsess over condition and appreciate (an even imagine) the stories that led a book to its present state.  As such, I am also against unnecessary restoration of books, to transform them into something they are not (handsome salable copies) and in essence to destroy (or at least detract from) part of their story.

Here are a few examples of the common condition problems that can befall books:

RATS:

Below is a legal manuscript from the first quarter of the 16th century: Manuscript, Statutes and Ordinances of the Diocese of Nantes [France, c.1515]. It was written shortly after the death of Anne of Brittany.  In the corner, some rodent had a field day munching on the fine vellum, but thankfully due to generous margins, missed the text itself  or just at least preferred  the “white” rather than the “dark” meat.  I imagine that as soon as the French Wars of Religion got into full swing that this Catholic statute book was abandoned in the basement of  a church with the rats running loose until at least the 19th century when it was rediscovered (as it contains some notes on the flyleaf.)

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WORMS:

Here is a humble little volume – and a rare one- of the Italian Renaissance poet Ascanio Grandi, printed in 1636,  where worms have left their mark.  Worms approach books with a callous indifference to subject matter- whether mundane or erudite- but at least they love books.   The turns and twists they make through the pages, if not hinting at 16th century fractal patterns, can be be appreciated for their natural beauty and modern artistic sensibilities.
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FLOODS:

Below is a 1616 folio of the collected works of  of Ben Jonson.  This folio was  crucial to developments in the publication of English literature and English Renaissance drama- and in no small measure inspired the publication in 1623 of Shakespeare’s First Folio (which helped preserve his works for us).  One can see that the work was severely damaged by the now brittle damp-stains of a flood.  What  student in Oxford in the 17th century was sitting reading with few cares by the Thames and dropped in momentarily into the water when a pretty maiden caught his eye?  As Shakespeare said, “there is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”  If only this were true of books.

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FIRE:

Here is a book whose damage really tells a story.  It is another work of Renaissance poetry, but this one came from and has the stamps of the Vatican Library! Inside a c. 1920s bookseller’s catalog clipping is tipped-in stating :”A curious collectors relic: a scorched book from the only fire in Vatican Library history. Contents sound, but singes covers preserved as grim momentos…”  The fire which broke out in the Vatican on November 1,1903, seriously endangered the library and art collection, and had it not been contained, would have taken its place in history next to the burning of the Alexandrian library.

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FINALLY:

I must conclude with an image where an unusual condition flaw (a splotch of ink) perhaps raises the value of the sullied manuscript to an inestimable degree (or at least made it a wonderful curiosity!   Here a cat, always indifferent  to anything of potential value more than itself, walked across this manuscript in the 15th century and left his prints.

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[Ref: Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)]

If you are curious about the value of your antiquarian, antique, or rare book, and want a free evaluation and for me to assess its condition- don’t hesitate to send photos to webuyrarebooks@gmail.com

posted in: RARE BOOK APPRAISAL, sell rare books, selling rare books, We Buy Manuscripts, We buy old books

March 4, 2015

Sotheby’s Rare Books

Sometimes, after I evaluate a rare book collection, clients will reasonably ask themselves if they would they be better selling them privately or at auction.   The auction house that is often on the tip of everyone’s tongue is Sotheby’s (with no insult to their peer Christie’s as they are a fine house- but I just am asked about them less frequently).  After all, Sotheby’s is a household name, and despite the fact that the majority of their revenues these days comes from modern art sales (which Al Capp mocked as the product of the ‘untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”), they actually started as a rare book auction house in the 18th century with the  disposal of “several hundred scarce and valuable” books.  To this day, they maintain an active rare book and manuscript department even if their focus has shifted.

So, the question is more succinctly stated: Would I get more money at auction for my rare books or by selling them privately.

Auctions are an important venue for selling books, and one can often get fair market value for books.  However, that does or not mean that the net proceeds will be higher than a private sale or that certain types of books will do better at auction.

Let’s break them into the simple positive and negatives as viewed form an the perspective of an experience bookseller who loves books auctions.

Positives at auction:

1) These days, exceptional material does well.  The rarest and most unique material can command strong prices.  The auctions have to a large degree focused on selling such ‘highlights’.  There have been many times in fact when I have advised sellers to consider the auction route if I felt the material would honestly ‘fly’ there due to its obvious importance/rarity or fresh to market appeal.

2) Sellers feel they can trust the process that a fair market value will be established.  There is less of a “can I trust this person” concern than with private dealers.

Negatives at auction:

1) Auction houses are increasingly fussy about rarity, condition, and the minimum worth of a book that they will consider for consignment (at the big houses this is often in the thousands of dollars).  If you have a library, this means it will be quickly cherry picked without solving the issue of what to do with the remaining books.

2) Auction houses can and do make mistakes and miss things that would raise the value of a book substantially.  That is how dealers make money- by going to auction and hunting for these ‘sleepers.’  An honest dealer who is buying privately (but certainly not at auction) will often point out a unique attribute in a book that makes a book more salable, where an auction house that is swamped with material may not pay as much attention.  This can be especially true for manuscript material that requires a lot of time and energy to read and properly evaluate.

2) Some books command more money privately than at auction.   Many quality rare antiquarian books and manuscripts that are not obvious highlights can do substantially better through private sales than at auction.  I have purchased many early printed books at auction and have sold them at considerable profit – clearly that would not be possible if I did not recognize value in them that exceeded the auction price.  Also, some dealers may have certain clients or libraries in mind and are willing to pay a high price to obtain material for them – especially when it has the attractive veneer of being ‘fresh to market” in an age when internet exposure can hurt value by the draining excitement of a find that everybody else has seen and knows about.

3)  Auction estimates can be overly optimistic.  After all, auction houses do not have ‘teeth in the game’ as they don’t lay out money for inventory.  While they sometimes present themselves as esteemed houses that offer bias-free evaluations, they are of course in reality businesses that are interested in making money  (as we all are) and they can’t do that without a constant flow of consignments.  As such, they can on occasion entice clients with estimates that are too optimistic (and there is nothing that kills a final sale price like a high estimate)

4) There is uncertainty in terms of the proceeds- some may enjoy gambling but that is not for everyone.  Additionally, it often takes a long time to get paid from the start of the process (certainly 6 months on average from consignment to payment)

5) Auction contracts can be overwhelming to new consignors.  They say “sign here” but clients sometimes do not pay attention to withdrawal or reserve fees if items do not sell or more complex rescission clauses that permit the auction house – even years later- to demand money paid to consignors if the item is returned for material defects that were not properly described (this happens only rarely with books but is not infrequent in other categories)

Let me offer a concrete example of a book I was offered: A couple years ago a seller came to me with a handsome copy of  Chandler (Alfred) & William Beattie Booth’s Illustrations and Descriptions of the Plants which Compose the Natural Order Camellieae.  This is wonderful and important monograph that contains 40 sumptuous hand-colored plates of camellias grown in his father’s nursery in Vauxhall.

When this was offered to me, I made an offer of $13,000 cash.  I provided an auction record (and full transparency often works against dealers unfortunately) of a copy that sold for $37,957 in 2002 at auction, but explained that there was a large paper copy from an important collection and the market for fine botanical books had weakened considerably since a couple well known collectors that had inflated prices withdrew from the market.

Here is a photo of one of the plates:

 

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The owner did not sell the book, which was perfectly understandable given what a copy had once sold for.   The owner  then consigned to auction to Christie’s with an $8000-$10,000 estimate, which although reasonably enticing, did not elicit much interest in a weak botanical market.  The book did not sell.   Given the transparency and wide availability of auction prices today, when a copy is unsold it can carry the scarlet letter of being unsold which can further hurt its resale value in the private market even if it is otherwise a lovely and important book.  In this particular case, the allure of a potential home run at auction (hopes that are infrequently, but sometimes, met) was too strong, and in the 20-20 hindsight none of us can possess, it would have been better to take the cash private offer.

Regardless of whether you wish to consider auction for your books or a private sale, I am happy to make free evaluations and you can contact me at webuyrarebooks@gmail.com or at 646 469-1851.   I will provide actual auction records for your books so you can reasonably estimate what your books would get at auction and make an informed decision.  I think you will also find that I devote the time and energy required to making discoveries that can often be overlooked.

posted in: Rare book auctions, sell rare books, selling rare books