Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2017 Issue

Are Books a Bargain?

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A very special bowl, but...

Are books a bargain in the collectibles field? Prices for art have long been astronomical compared to even the greatest and most important of books or other examples of works on paper. It is not surprising that a da Vinci or Rembrandt would bring prices that transcend anything in the book world, but even a few decades-old painting by Andy Warhol can surpass the most historically important of books ever sold by several fold. Warhol was good at what he did, and his Campbell Soup cans were creative, but more so than the first printing of all of Shakespeare's plays combined? The market says "yes."

 

But, another collectible item recently sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong just caught my attention, particularly when juxtaposed with the highest priced sale ever in the books and paper field only two weeks earlier. On September 20, a private sale between the Community of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was announced. The Community of Christ is a smaller group of the Mormon faith, the Latter Day Saints the church generally known as the Mormons in Salt Lake City. The sale was of the original printer's manuscript copy of the Book of Mormon, which the Community of Christ had owned since the early twentieth century. The price was $35 million.

 

The item sold at Sotheby's was a bowl, albeit a very old bowl. Sotheby's describes it as "finely potted with shallow rounded sides rising from a slightly splayed foot, exquisitely veiled in a luminous and translucent bluish-green glaze suffused with a dense network of glistening ice crackles." However, before getting too carried away by the description, they also note, "A taste for a ware so extremely modest and unspectacular could only evolve from a world view that propagated modesty and honesty over ostentation and pretence." I have something that looks like this bowl, though obviously not as old or historic. Sotheby's bowl was from the Northern Song Dynasty of China, which dates from 960-1127. Most likely, it was produced between the years 1086-1106. That means you probably don't want to serve your Cheerios in it, as I would from my bowl. A display case would be a more appropriate venue.

 

I would not pretend to know anything about ancient Chinese ceramic ware. Clearly this item is both special and rare and a particularly desirable example of its kind. Still, as the picture will attest, it is a bowl. It does not represent the first appearance of great literature, enormous scientific discoveries, or ancient history going back even farther than the Song Dynasty. It is a "modest and unspectacular" bowl. There is very little of our great knowledge tied up in it. It sold for almost $38 million.

 

This modest bowl (technically a Ru ware brush washer, likely used to hold ink or paint) just sold for more than any book or manuscript has ever sold. It is evidently important to Chinese history, but surely it can't be that important. You could buy a dozen Shakespeare First Folios, maybe more, in top condition, and have plenty left over to buy a warehouse full of bowls for this. You could buy almost three of the eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America and the highest priced ever achieved at auction for a printed book, for that amount. China must have some books of comparable importance to its culture that you can buy for a lot less than $38 million. Perhaps one was written from the ink in this bowl. I suspect we may never see a printed work worth more than $38 million unless the government decides to print a $40 million bill.

 

None of this means you should run out and invest your life savings in books because the market someday must recognize this imbalance and push up the prices of books. The market is not so rational. Even ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) cautions that books should be bought because you love them, not as an investment. However, what this does say to me is that if you wish to collect something that is of historic and cultural significance, you can get far more bang for your buck with books than with bowls.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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.
  • <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

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