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I am often asked “What is this antique book worth?” The adage that “something is worth what someone will pay” is not a satisfactory or helpful answer. In the antiquarian book world, when giving a professional opinion of value, it is often helpful to consult actual action records in the databases for comparable copies that have sold, as well as other retail copies on the market (primarily through collectible and out of print book search engines like Abebooks.com). It is also particularly important to assess the actual copy of the work at hand to look for any distinguishing characteristics that can increase the value such as provenance, binding, condition etc.
Here is a copy of a work I was recently asked to evaluate. The book is an 1810 copy of Henry Fuseli’s Lectures of Paintings. Fuseli’s style had a considerable influence on many younger British artists, most importantly William Blake.
When examining the auction records, one can easily find that a copy sold at Bloomsbury Auctions in London 2013 for 69 GBP. Certainly that can be used as a benchmark evaluation for the book since that is an actual sales price. Perhaps if this copy went into auction, it would receive only scant attention from buyers and a cursory examination, and achieve a similar price.
Nevertheless, the book appears increasingly scarce in commerce. There are no copies at present listed on the major book search engines for purchase at the touch of a button. This gives one, as they say in retail, some pricing power (at least some limited pricing power as it assumes demand).
What is lovely about this book is that there is an engraved vignette at end (“Ancora imparo: Mr Angelo Bonarroti”) by Blake. This engraving directly links two of the world’s greatest artists: Blake and Michelangelo. In a Blake Dictionary, S. Foster Damon writes that “Michelangelo was to Blake’s painting what Milton was to Blake’s poetry.” To a buyer that may be unfamiliar with Fuseli’s book, the possibility to own an original Blake engraving at modest cost – and one that depicts his own interpretation of the image of Michelangelo- certainly raises interest in the book.
Additionally, this copy features a rather fascinating “CLD” in gilt on the black morocco spine (in attractive contract with the earthy pebbled marbled papers). The CLD ares the initials of Caroline Lucy Scott, Lady Scott (1784–1857), the Scottish novelist. A known 18th century woman writer’s provenance is quite interesting, and I don’t recall seeing a similar placement of initials or a monogram on the side of a spine of a book, perhaps a parallel to the way a monogram might be placed on the clasp of a diary. It makes a delightful example of a bookbinding and personal ownership and that certainly raises the value in my eyes.
It would therefore not be inappropriate, given its scarcity in commerce and the attractiveness of this particular example, to put a price of $450 on it. Whether someone will pay that is, as always, another story.
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.
As a rare book dealer, I get calls on a weekly basis to provide valuations of first editions. These requests usually involves some household names of authors of the 20th century from Faulkner to Hemingway and Steinbeck to Fitzgerald. One of the first questions that comes up is “does the book have the dust jacket?” This often leads to great disappointment as it is difficult for someone not familiar with the antiquarian and rare book market to fully appreciate the value of a dust jacket on a literary first edition. Once can see a copy of a particular first edition online for $20,000 and it can be incomprehensible how merely missing a piece of paper wrapper can reduce its value to a few hundred.
I won’t get involved in this brief post as to why dust jackets are so valuable. Suffice it to say, they can both be extremely rare given their ephemeral nature and beautiful as icons of graphic art. Here, I would rather focus on an early type of “dust jacket.” The earliest-known book dust wrapper dates from 1829 and was intended to protect a finely-bound gift book entitled Friendship’s Offering. You can read about that Bodleian treasure here. The dust jacket was therefore born as a simple protective wrapper and only later evolved into works of art and tools of marketing. Oftentimes, the earliest jackets were used to protect expensive volumes bound in fine materials such as leather or silk.
The book below is not one of those finely bound volumes but a rather inexpensively produced and issued American imprint. Specifically, it is a 1814 Boston edition (a first American edition) of “Some Details concerning General Moreau”, the French general who helped Napoleon to power, but later as a rival was banished to the United States and whose abode near Trenton eventually became the refuge of many political exiles. Nevertheless, despite this rich history and actually being a scarce imprint in commerce, the book itself is not particularly valuable if one takes values in the auction databases as a gauge. In fact, I bought it in a lot myself at the very modest price of $20 from an antique dealer at the fun DCFlea.
One can notice in the photo a sort of dust jacket on the book that is almost contemporary with the date of publication. That does not make it the earliest such jacket as I would have to make the reasonable assumption that this was not a wrapper issued by the publisher but rather placed on for protection slightly later by a reference library in Bath Maine of the American Colonization Society. The book is inscribed by Jonathan Hyde who was one of the society’s earliest members. Most interestingly, the American Colonization Society promoted the relocation of free blacks to West Africa and transported 12,000 blacks to Liberia.
So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I do try to place a monetary value on the work and give some indication of how I arrived at a figure. Despite it being a relatively early American imprint of French history, it probably would not have a market value of anything more then $100 or so. Still, with the added value of the early paper wrappers as well as its provenance and historical connection to free blacks, it has broader appeal both as a bibliographical curiosity and to the African-Americana collectors. As such, I would place a fair value more likely in the $400 range.
Monetary value aside it, it is a wonderful example of how by unfolding the story of a simple unnoticed paper jacket, history itself unfolds.
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], . 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]
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.