Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2017 Issue

A $2 Million Theft? Maybe Not

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How one estimates the value of rare, even unique works is always a challenge. The correct formula is to determine the market price agreed upon by a willing buyer and willing seller, but the rarer the item, the harder that can be to determine. In the case of books, some are extremely rare, occasionally the only known copy. With manuscripts and ephemeral items, there often is only one of its kind.

 

If there is but one of a kind, there are generally two methods employed in valuing it. In the first, a skilled appraiser will search for known prices on comparable items, such as a similar document from the same person, or another person of comparable notoriety. Then there is the other method, whereby the estimator pulls some number out of thin air (or someplace else), often what the owner in his wildest dreams would like to obtain. If you have ever searched the listing sites or eBay, you will undoubtedly find some examples of each, even a few where the unknowing owner grossly underestimates the value (you won't see this as often as they don't last long).

 

This takes us to one of the more amusing cases we have seen lately, where the item was a piece of original art, but the principles are the same. The Abilene (Texas) Police Department recently issued the following report:

 

"A 60 year old Lubbock man who was passing through Abilene on his way to the Metroplex [i.e. Dallas-Forth Worth] alleges someone came into his motel room over the weekend and stole over $2 mil. in paintings, some clothing and a map. Ricky Denzler had rented a room at a motel located at 3417 South 1st in order to visit family. At some point over the weekend Denzler says someone came into his room and stole the 5 paintings, the clothing and a map.

 

"Denzler says he is the artist of the paintings and estimated their value at over $2 million dollars. Denzler did not provide any proof of the paintings. The Abilene Police Department is working this incident as a Burglary of a Habitation. The investigation continues."

 

There were five paintings, four of which Denzler estimated at $2,000, $2,500, $16,000 and $24,000. The fifth he estimated at over $2 million. It appears he used the latter of the two previous methods of estimating value mentioned earlier. Denzler is not a well-known artist. The only matches to his paintings that can be found in an internet search are those referring to this alleged theft. He is, perhaps, the next Michelangelo, but it does not appear that anyone else has recognized that yet. Only Mr. Denzler, who provided the police with the valuations, has so concluded as of this time. It is very unlikely he sought the advice of a licensed appraiser in reaching his estimates.

 

A few other details added to the suspicions. Mr. Denzler was staying in an older, inexpensive motel in a neighborhood of comparables. One usually doesn't leave a $2 million painting alone in the room of such a place. Press reports added further suspicion as the motel manager voiced suspicion based on the appearance of some of the people visiting Mr. Denzler. Abilene police later reported that they had received calls from Interpol and London when reports got out that a $2 million painting had been stolen in Abilene. Abilene police assured them that these were not the paintings they were seeking. They also indicated it was likely that they would close the case.

 

The message here is that for buyers and sellers, it is important to ascertain as closely as possible actual market valuations of collectibles. For buyers, it is imperative if one hopes to be able to sell the item at a future date without incurring a serious loss. For sellers, it is important if one hopes to actually sell their wares. Mr. Denzler may value his painting at $2 million, but he will never sell it until he determines what the fair market value is for his work. Safe to say, he needs to dramatically sharpen his paintbrush.

 

For lower priced items, listing sites such as AbeBooks, Biblio, and Amazon can provide some guidance, though these are only asking prices, not selling prices, and it is not clear how these asking prices are determined. One should look to the lower prices asked for guidance unless there is a discernible difference between those and the ones that are priced higher (condition, etc.). For more valuable books and works on paper, one should look for actual sales records, such as those available through the Rare Book Transaction History (subscription available on this website) or from a recognized appraiser. It is worth getting the numbers right.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.

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