December 31, 2014




Occasionally we are offered an “incunable, or a book that that was printed— not handwritten —before the year 1501 in Europe. Incunabula (in plural) are not as rare in commerce as one would suppose — at least as a group — even if specific individual titles or editions can be exceptionally rare.  The printing press was such a success that its development spread throughout Europe with incredible speed and entrepreneurs quickly opened establishments to turn out these technological marvels. A commonly used referred work, The Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue, records at least 28,000 15th century editions.

It is natural to think a book from the 15th century would be worth a fortune, and this is especially understandable when one holds in their hands such a remarkable object. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and like other books, incunabula tend to have auction records that help establish a clear picture of their market value.

It is beyond the scope of this short post to review all the factors that can influence the value of an incunable from the binding, the work and edition, the illumination or rubrication (painting to make it look like a manuscript), rarity, and importance etc.

By way of example, however, I can illustrate how I evaluated a recent incunable we were offered (and purchased). To start with, here are some photos of the book:





First,  we can identify the book from both the “incipit” (the opening words of a text, manuscript, early printed book) and the “colophon” (often the last paragraph which gives info on the publisher, place, and date of publication).  From this we quickly learn that we have here a copy of Johannes Reuchlin’s  Vocabulari[us] breuiloqu[us] cu[m] arte.  This is a well known, and not particularly rare work of the 15th century.  However, Reuchlin‘s popular dictionary opened the door to German humanism, by providing the linguistic key to a study of the Latin classics. This edition was printed by Georg Husner on  25 August, 1495 in Strassburg, Germany.

Next we check the work’s “collation” or page count- to make sure all the pages are there.  A work that is incomplete — lacking even a single page — can often really hurt its value.  Checking the collation takes time and requires some familiarity with basic bibliographical references, notations, and the way an early book was printed. This copy, save for a blank leaf,  is thankfully complete.

After that,  we look at the binding.  Books can be rebound over the centuries and original bindings do not always escape the ravages of time.  We are fortunate here as well that this copy has retained the original binding, which is known as an “Augsburg binding”, with attractive rosettes and leaf ornaments stamped into the pigskin in “blind”. Those ornaments can be seen close-up in the second photo above.

A search of the auction records reveals a few recent copies that have sold, but one in particular which is comparable to our copy above, was auctioned at Christie’s New York, Apr 23, 2001, lot 106, for $8,000.  Naturally, an auction is a battle of buyers and sellers — and many times only one buyer and one seller pitted against each other.  Results, like the romantic glance of a first encounter with someone, cannot always be duplicated on a second occasion.   Therefore, while the auction records are a good guide, they still require a certain knowledge and connoisseurship to be properly used for evaluating another example.  In this case, however, and despite the copy at auction having come from the prestigious Helmut Friedlaender collection, $8000 is not an unreasonable evaluation (weighing the passage of time since that sale and looking at the condition of other copies that have sold for less).

Next we look to see if there are any distinguishing characteristics of this book — and there are!  In fact, they are quite fascinating.  In this copy, there is an  early manuscript on the inner rear board (in an early or near contemporary to the period German hand).  After some careful study this is revealed to be a sort of  code or at least a medieval word-game.  Specifically, it is acrostic poem with the columns spelling the first letters of the  Hail Mary — “Ave Maria,gratia plena, Dominus tecum.”    This can be seen in the photos below if one carefully reads the vertical column which spells out the latin letters  “A … V … E … M … A .. R .. I … E …” etc.  The owner of the work hundred of years ago used each letter as the start of a line of poetry.

One of the reasons  that this secret AVE MARIA “acrostic” (as it is called) is so interesting is it is a  formative example of early ciphers.  In other words, this word play (and the Ave Maria form in particular) started as fun (and maybe out of religious reverence) in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but then someone said  “Hey — why don’t I use this type of code for writing secret messages?” Cryptography was born.



We are still left with coming up with a final value to place on the book, given this interesting and unique manuscript on the inner rear board.  In my estimation, it certainly adds a couple thousand dollars to the value of an identical edition without it as it is a rare surviving example of an acrostic and an intellectually exciting find.

Pricing books is an art and not a science — and when the book is unique as in the case here — even experienced dealers can underprice books as often as they overprice them.  The market quickly decides with the underpriced ones snatched off the shelves and the overpriced ones left to linger to collect dust and booksellers’ frustrations. Here, I have priced the book (given all the factors above) at $9500.











posted in: RARE BOOK APPRAISAL, Rare Books