Think back to 2021. This was supposed to be the year of new openings! A return to pre-pandemic normalcy! Instead, it became the year that failed to live up to its preseason hype. Many of the in-person events were either cancelled or forced to remain virtual. In the Rare Book world, most of the trades were conducted through on-line websites and virtual book fairs or auctions. In 2021, our Rare Book Sale Monitor (RBSM) recorded an increase in interest in the Children’s literature and Sciences. Sales of works by Dickens and Rowling pushed prices upward, while classical works lead by Euclid and Kircher showed renewed interest.

Rare Book Sale Monitor – Genre Breakdown

At the start of 2022, event organizers welcomed the end of many COVID restrictions, but the industry remained relatively cautious. ABAA held two international antiquarian book fairs, one in California and the most recent one in New York. The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair took place in-person at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, April 21-24, 2022. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks. The ABAA Virtual Book Fair: New York Edition, a virtual component of the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, took place May 4-5, 2022. The future, as predicted in our December 2020 post, Virtual in Boston: “In the future, we are more likely to see organizers develop hybrid events where exhibitors display in-person while offering a concurrent on-line presence,” seems to be upon us. The ABAA organizers wisely selected the dates for the two events to be appropriately spread two weeks apart to avoid overlaps and generate a prolonged interest.

While there is no simple way to track and report the sales of an in-person show, dealer feedback from the in-person New York event has been positive. There was total of 156 dealers present from all over the world, and attendance was surprisingly strong. Book collectors seized the opportunity to be able to touch, feel and smell, despite the mask, their favorite collectables. The virtual event, which took place on May 4-5, 2022, offered 4,125 books for sale from 102 dealers. Compared with similar ABAA events, this particular virtual event, lagged behind in international dealer participation. The majority of international sellers, it seems, were happy to get out of the country and meet face-to-face with potential buyers and colleagues at the Park Avenue Armory.

Dealer participation mix was not the only difference from last year’s corresponding virtual event. It is fair to state that the return to an in-person book fair affected the virtual negatively on both the supply and demand sides of the trade, as the statistical comparison below indicates:

New York ABAA Fairs 2022 and 2021 Comparison

The sell-thru rate dropped from 9.10% in 2021 to 7.81%. Last year’s 9.10% rate was already the lowest compared to other ABAA events (see the Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2021 post). Both California and Boston scored better ratios on total items sold relative to total number of items available for sale. The average price of books for sale was cut in half at this year’s virtual event, but still less was sold. It is a fair to assume, that the higher priced items were exhibited at the in-person show instead.

Auction houses have been relatively slow opening their doors to floor bidders as well. Results so far have remained relatively the same; they are lacking big sales. Much of Americana offerings failed to generate bidder interest. Notably, Walt Whitman’s “America’s second Declaration of Independence,” signed by him and valued by Sotheby’s at 150,000 to 200,000 USD, remained unsold during the New York Fine Books and Manuscripts auction held last January. The event as a whole was mediocre compared to prior similar auctions.

Rare book price inflation is expected to remain high this year and next, as economic conditions remain favorable and current supply is limited due to the surge in buying experienced in recent years. Assuming there are no more lockdowns and people begin to dine out, travel and go to events, there will be more person-to-person transactions. The future of virtual is still hard to predict. While it should remain active in many different forms, the recent slowdown may be only temporary. Health and freedom are gifts. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “To deprive a man of his natural liberty and to deny to him the ordinary amenities of life is worse than starving the body; it is starvation of the soul, the dweller in the body.”

 

 

 

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The Cambridge University Library has announced that the two notebooks written by Charles Darwin, worth many millions of pounds and which have been missing for more than two decades have been safely returned. Apart from the content of the notebooks, one of which contains his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch, there is no more intriguing question than “What are they worth?” The University had estimated their value to be “priceless” by placing it at: “many millions of pounds.”

Legendary book dealer William S. Reese, during his presentation at Brown University, in the fall of 1999, referenced the then value of the Bay Psalm Book to be: “not exactly priceless in the sense that the market would place a value on it if it were for sale; but it is priceless in the sense that Yale has no plans to sell it.” Reese, who passed away in 2018, is universally acknowledged to be the greatest American antiquarian bookseller of his generation. He lived long enough to observe the sale of another copy of the Bay Psalm Book, which sold for the price of 14.2 million US dollars at a Sotheby’s auction, in November of 2013.

Most institutions mark a valuable acquisition with a stamp identifying ownership which in turn destroys the value of the book for resale. The Darwin notebooks did not carry the usual library stamps, which made them vulnerable to heist. Fortunately, in this case, the thief was unable or did not attempt to trade the unmarked, unique notebooks, or, perhaps a guilty buyer acted properly by returning them to the owner. It requires two parties, as in all trades, and in this case, in addition to the thief, there could have been a buyer who was well aware of the rarity and the value of the books, should one had chosen to join in the crime. An incunabulum manuscript of this value would be such a prominent holding, that any thief who wanted to avoid detection would not steal one.

During the period starting in 1992, and ending in April of 2017, a similar crime took place at the Oliver Room Room, the home to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books and archives. Greg Priore, manager of the room, stole: 276 hand-colored lithographic maps of the European exploration; 1,500 photogravure prints of Native Americans, created by Edward Curtis in the first decades of the 20th century; 155 hand-colored lithographs from John James Audubon’s 1851-54 Quadrupeds of North America; 51 plates and maps from John Ogilby’s America; all the maps from Ptolemy’s 1548 La Geographia; the contents of the 18-volume set of Giovanni Piranesi’s extremely rare etchings, printed between 1748 and 1807; a collection of sermons printed in 1473; a first edition of Isaac Newton’s 98; a first edition of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; a letter written by William Jennings Bryan; a rare copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1898 memoir, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897; a first English edition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron; a first edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner; and more!

On the other end of this heist, was a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), founder of the Caliban Book Shop, John Schulman. Schulman would stamp at the bottom of the bookplate adhered to the inside front cover of all Oliver Room items brought to him by Priore, “Withdrawn from Library,” in bright red ink. That mark was enough to cancel out all other library stamps present inside the book, map, or plate. Schulman’s catalog description noted the book’s condition as: “very good with minor ex-library marks.”

Both Priore and Schulman pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and committing theft. Sentencing in property crimes depends largely on the replacement value of each of the stolen items. The advisors hired by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to determine the replacement value, concluded that it was more than $8 million, in another example of a “priceless” evaluation. Judge Bicket sentenced Greg Priore to three years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation. Schulman received four years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation, an extremely light sentencing. I guess those library stamps must serve a purpose after all!

Reese, William S. “The Rare Book Market Today”, Yale University Library Gazette, Vol 74, Nos 3-4 April 2000.

McDade, Travis. 2020, “The Inside Story of the $8 Million Heist From the Carnegie Library.” Smithsonian Magazine, <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/theft-carnegie-library-books-maps-artworks-180975506/>

Roberts, Stuart. 2022, “Missing Darwin notebooks returned to Cambridge University Library” Cambridge University Libraries, <https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/TreeOfLife>

 

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Historical Fiction Reads at a Time of War

March 26, 2022

In my spare time, I have been rereading C.S. Forester’s brilliant, 12-book epic Horatio Hornblower series, which I originally read when I was a teenager. Transfixed by the destruction taking place in Ukraine, it is hard to read, or watch, or think about anything else besides the war. Such devastation has overshadowed everything else. All […]

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G.E.: “We Bring Good Books to Life”

February 3, 2022
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In a 1973 interview, author Kurt Vonnegut, discussed his inspiration to write his first novel, the dystopian, Player Piano (1952).  He cheerfully acknowledged that he ripped off the plot of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924). Kurt Vonnegut’s story about the “National Manufacturing […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2021

December 22, 2021
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2021 will go down, among other things, as the year with a lot of people having a lot more money than they know what to do with. Aggressively escalating rare book prices set the tone for future market conditions: scarcity wrapped in higher prices. Is $471,000 too much to pay for a J. K. Rowling, […]

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Rare Book Optimal Pricing

November 9, 2021
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How can rare book sellers determine the optimal price for their items brought to market? If the price is set too high, the buyers may not bid to buy, if the price is set too low, the stock may be sold below optimal pricing. The information that is needed to set the right price for […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2021

September 22, 2021
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Sadly, the pandemic is still with us, but so are the Virtual Book Fairs (VBF)! The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), had planned to hold an impromptu, in-person event of its highly successful New York fair this month, but  switched to a VBF instead, complements of the Delta variant. At this time we are […]

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The Good, the Bad and the Rare

August 22, 2021
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Alabama native Asa Carter was a home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, founder of the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, right-wing radio announcer, publisher of the segregationist newsletter “Southerner”, and secret author of the famous 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: ‘Segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever.’ Forrest Carter’s first book The Rebel Outlaw: Josey […]

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The Rare Books of Popular Chemistry

July 19, 2021
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In a popular science book, the English Chemist James Lovelock described his Gaia hypothesis to a lay readership. The hypothesis proposed that living organisms and inorganic material on Earth are part of a dynamic, integrated, self-regulating system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere, and maintains ideal conditions for life to flourish. Initially received with skepticism, the […]

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Copyright Page or “Confusion Page of Anomalies”

May 31, 2021
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The publishing details for a book are usually printed on the back of the half title or, in some cases, the title page. This page is sometimes called the ‘copyright page‘ or the ‘publishing details page’. Through the years, publishers have used a number of copyright designations to specify the edition or the printing of […]

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