The Japanese Fairy Tales Series was published by Hasegawa Takejiro between 1885 and 1922. Hasegawa combined the talents of well-known traditional Japanese woodblock printers like Kobyashi Eitaku, Suzuki Kason, and Chikanobu, with celebrated foreign translators, creating an enduring international success. Most of Hasegawa’s books were produced in limited amounts, generally four to five hundred at a run, and now have become quite scarce in Japan and internationally. As with most collectible rare books, the earlier editions are the most valuable. Identifying a true first issue of this series is difficult due scarcity and also the combinations of prevalent identifiers which need to be considered: date printed on the copyright page, address of the publisher, composition of the title, material of construction.

The original series included 20 volumes published between 1885 and 1892, with another three volumes subsequently published in what is considered the second series. “The Fairy Tale series introduced traditional Japanese folk tales, first to readers of English and French, and later to readers of German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian,” writes the Public Domain Review’s Christopher DeCou. The English and French translations are the most valuable, which contain the first issues of the first few volumes published with titles written in Romaji (romanized Japanese language), without series volume numbers. Later volumes from the series, as well as all later printings of the first volumes, have titles spelled phonetically in English “englished.”

Possible first issues of the first six titles should have the date 1885 printed.  Japanese dates use the era of Japanese history as a starting point with an added offset to specify a date. For example, the year 1885, is printed with the Meiji era (明治) which extended from October 23, 1868, to July 30, 1912. Thus, the year 1885, is printed as (Meiji era with 18 years added: 明治18年), or 18 years after the beginning of the Meiji era (明治十八年). The trailing 年, denotes the year in generic contexts. Therefore, the characters before the year (年) denote the year of publication. A revised edition (再版), published in 1886, has the date printed as (Meiji 19: 明治19年), which corresponds to the Japanese kanji: (明治十九年) .

“Momotaro” first edition

“Momotaro” second cover design

The colophon has Hasegawa’s address printed which on early appearances shows the Konbusha imprint with the address: “Minami Saegi-cho, Tokyo“, which was the very first address of the publisher. Later addresses include “Maruya-cho”, “Kyobashi-ku,” and more recently, Nihonbashi-honcho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Around 1890, the Kobunsha imprint was discontinued and the T. Hasegawa imprint was established.

Most of what is available for sale today, were printed on “Chirimen-bon” (Crepe Paper Books), with color woodblock illustrations and a white string binding. The very first issues of the first few volumes were printed on plain, uncreped paper and hence a bit larger than the creped versions, approximately 18.1 x 12.3 cm. It appears that the shift from the production on plain paper to creped paper books coincided with the establishments of the T. Hasegawa imprint, circa 1890.

Plain vs Crepe Paper Size

The true first issue of the series #1 thru #6 are printed on plain paper, have a transliterated (spelled phonetically in English) title without the “Japanese Fairy Tale Series No. __” subtitle on the front cover or inside the front cover, and have the Konbusha “Minami Saegi-cho” address imprint with the date 1885.

Before becoming collectable, the stories were produced more with the view to interest young readers of the West than collectors of Japanese folk-lore. Children’s rare books are famously scarce simply because children aren’t the best library archivists.  Torn pages, broken string bindings, dog-eared edges, corner cuts, stained pages are common features of these books. Coupled with the fragile material of construction, the survival rate for such books is extremely low. They are collectible in any condition. If you find a first issue or close to it with soiling or pages which are worn, don’t wait around for a “better” copy – just grab it and run!

 

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The rare book trade finished another year of sales and according to the Rare Book Hub, sales of the highest priced items did worse in 2023 compared to 2022. Rare Book Hub compares auction sales from most auction houses and it includes items such as trading cards, in addition to books and ephemera. According to the website post, the trend is a continuation from 2022, when book and paper auction sales totaled $1.06 billion, which was down approximately $100 million from 2021, when a few high-priced items skewed figures upward, but up sharply from sales of $725 million in 2020.  Two important statistics referenced are as follow. Firstly, 12 items sold for prices exceeding $1 million in 2023. In 2022, it was twice that number- 24. Secondly, the average price of sales dropped substantially, from $2,094 in 2022, to $1,863 in 2023; an 11% decline.

Auctions are one important channel through which rare books are traded, but it’s not the only channel. Rare books are also traded through on-line marketplaces and dealer websites, as well as at antiquarian book fairs, and through a diminishing number of remaining brick and mortar bookstores. While we have no way to capture in-person exchanges, we do have a number of on-line marketplaces reporting on their top sales for the year. Sales at auctions include some of the most expensive books offered for sale, but on-line sales carry the majority of books traded. For example, Abebooks alone has over 100 million books for sale. Based on the performance reported by a number of dealers, a realistic estimate of the annual sales volume on Abebooks is approximately 10% annually, or 10 million books. Rare Book Hub captured 658,000 items traded during various auctions in 2023.

On-line marketplaces are selling not only more books than auctions, but are also selling at higher prices from one year to the next. According to Abebooks’  most expensive sales reported at the end of each year, prices increased by 11% from 2021, to 2022. And prices for the most expensive sales reported for 2023, jumped a whopping 71% from the prior year. Our Rare Book Sale Monitor produced the following average sale chart for the years 2021-23 by genre. The genres Modern First Editions, Poetry and Literary Criticism and Science Fiction/Fantasy, led this price increase trend.

Most Expensive Average Sale Price by Year by Genre

 

The pandemic provided the opportunity to capture an accurate set of figures on how well antiquarian book fairs perform. During the years when ABAA book fairs shifted to remote only participation, we were able to collect data on the actual sales for the top three fairs which took place in Boston, New York and California. The number of books sold at fairs such as these, are negligible compared to what gets sold at on-line marketplaces. For example, most sales in terms of total number sold took place in 2020, at the California book fair, with 1,264 sold. The highest average price for books sold was recorded in 2021, in New York, with $2,716. The most expensive tier at this event scored an average price of $44,000; comparable to the one reported by Abebooks most expensive sales for 2023. Of course, there are multiple book fairs held throughout the world.  The combined sales from all such events are estimated to be close to those sold at auctions, which is significantly less than the number of items sold through the various on-line marketplaces.

The ABAA held a few online events as well as several in-person fairs in 2022. Finally, they are now back to pre-pandemic levels of attendance with just a small decline in the number of participating dealers. Some dealers cannot justify spending close to 5 figures for a booth at one of these events. On the opposite side of the trade, buyers are deterred by the high buyer premium fees; some, close to 30%, charged on top of the high bids at auctions. What does the future hold given these dynamics at play? The most probable trend is more of the same: buyers getting more comfortable buying higher priced rare books at on-line marketplaces, while book fairs and auctions give in to dealer and buyers’ preferences.

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