August 26, 2017
Rare Book Auction Prices vs. Retail Prices
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.