December 30, 2018
Value of a Rare Chinese Book
This 1705 edition of George Psalmanazar’s An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (i.e. Taiwan) is a long time favorite title of mine. Indeed, the book is one of the greatest hoaxes of the 18th century. The mysterious author, George Psalmanazar, invented a book on Taiwan for eager English readers filled with tales of infant sacrifices,
breakfasts of viper’s blood, devil worship, all inventively illustrated. For good measure, he included a fictitious alphabet of the Formosan language (depicted below), an effort that was so convincing that German grammarians included samples of it well into the 19th century. The book itself was a great success and went through two English editions, as well as later French and German translations.
Despite being blond with a faux French accent, and an opium addiction, Psalmanazar hobnobbed with the upper crust of London society including Swift, Johnson, and even Isaac Newton. In this copy in an 18th century hand, someone describes Johnson’s love of the man who he called, “the most pious man he had ever met”
So, what is a 1705 edition of the book worth?
This copy sadly is not in pristine condition: the calf is worn and dry, the front board is detached, and the title page has some inner marginal loss (perhaps slight gnawing) that just touches the outer border Additionally, it has a one plate lacking. Generally, in the antiquarian book world, when anything is lacking, it is often considered a fatal condition flaw.
If we look in the rare book auction record, we can see a copy perhaps in similar condition, albeit complete, in 2015 that sold for a modest price of $344 (including the buyer’s premium). It was described as:
PSALMANAZAR, GEORGE An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. London: Wotton, et al, 1705. Second edition. Half red morocco gilt. 7 3/8 x 4 1/4 inches (19 x 11 cm); 296 pp., with folding map and 17 plates (one folding). Some spotting, worming to lower margin of rear of volume not affecting text, rear joint cracked. C Estate of William W. Appleton.
The low price at auction for such an interesting antiquarian volume is largely a consequence of its popularity. Its success meant that it had a relatively large print run in its day and many copies survive in the trade. Law of supply and demand as always.
So, what is value of this charming, albeit imperfect volume? Well, it does have one interesting redeeming aspect: as mentioned above on the front paste-down , in 18th century contemporary hand, someone has recounted Samuel Johnson’s love of the author. While it would take more careful research to see if there is new information not previously known to scholars about their relationship, it dovetails nicely with the remarkable story of this forged account. As such, it probably adds a couple hundred dollars to the value.
So, overall I would judge the book to be worth $400.
If you have any rare Chinese books, you would like valued, please send photos to email@example.com or text 6464691851. I am always interested in purchasing old and antique books on China and the Far East.