Where Goes the Collectible Book?

Source: americanexchange.com

By Michael Stillman


A recent unsold auction lot is something of a microcosm of various challenges facing the book trade today. It was a single item, though not an ordinary book. It was a set of Edward Curtis' The North American Indian, consisting of 20 volumes of photographs and text captured by Curtis in the early 20th century. J. Pierpont Morgan bankrolled the project; Theodore Roosevelt supplied the introduction. After years of preparation, the first volume appeared in 1907. The last did not make it to print until 1930, long after Morgan and Roosevelt died. It is a wonderful set.

Despite the great support and investment, Curtis was only able to obtain 222 subscribers, and but 272 sets were produced. One of those subscribers was Lammot Du Pont II, of the giant chemical company that bears his name. He gave his set to the Wilmington Institute Library. Last spring, the library decided to put this work and 14 N.C. Wyeth paintings produced for a 1920 edition of Robinson Crusoe up for sale at Christie's auction. The Wyeth paintings were purchased directly from the artist by the library in 1922 to hang on the walls of their reading rooms. The Curtis auction was held on October 8, while the Wyeth items will be sold on December 2. According to an earlier news release from Christie's, the proceeds were to be used to "support the Library¡¦s physical plant and endowment."

Christie's put an estimate range of $700,000 to $900,000 on the Curtis set. When bids were received, the highest offered was $600,000. The bidding was closed with the books unsold. However, an offer was accepted immediately after the sale for $775,000. While that may sound higher than the minimum estimate, it would include commissions. The Wilmington Library evidently received somewhat less than the minimum estimate. A spokesperson for the library expressed some disappointment, at least at the initial results, but relayed Christie's confidence that the Wyeths would do well, describing the artwork as belonging to a completely different market. Christie's earlier estimated in excess of $3.8 million for the Wyeth paintings, possibly $5 million.

This sale raises a number of issues of great concern to the book world today, including some very tender subjects. The issue of libraries deaccessioning important works is particularly controversial. The circumstances here make it even tougher, the Curtis having been gifted to the library by a collector with strong Delaware ties, and the funds being used not to expand the collection but to repair the physical plant. We will not go into this issue further because it is discussed at length in the article More Than Meets the Eye in this month's issue of AE Monthly.

The other major issue raised by this sale is the value and collectibility of books in these changing times. The results for the Curtis were mildly disappointing, yet the sellers remain unconcerned as to how the Wyeth paintings will do. Art remains strong, even as books struggle. At the same sale, a 1969 print of a 1955 photograph by Robert Frank, Fish Kill, New York, sold for $170,500, more than doubling the midpoint of its estimate range of $75,000. I grew up near Fishkill, and it's a nice place, but... That's somewhat facetious, as the photograph is of a motorcycle rider, not Fishkill, though presumably it was taken in Fishkill, but the point is that art is trumping text these days by a wide margin. The Curtis will always do fine as it is a truly important book, and it is filled with photographs that are themselves every bit the artistic equal of Frank's photograph (in my opinion, but please don't tear them out of the book to hang on a wall). Still, the relative weakness of a book, even one that is filled with artistic photographs, compared to one photograph easily mounted on a wall, is notable. Books that are less artistic, comprised primarily or entirely of text, will face an even more challenging environment.
Another news item, from the New York Times, at a time when we know traditional book fairs are struggling, further displays this growing divide. The article begins, "If you harbor even a speck of doubt about the continuing viability of hold-in-your-hand-and turn-the-pages print publications, check out the New York Art Book Fair..." The headline perhaps expresses the issue even more starkly - "All the Books You'll Never Catch on a Kindle." The books that are doing well are more works of art than practical, information-laden texts. These are the books that cannot be translated to a Kindle because it is their artistic virtues that make them valuable. Those that are valued for the knowledge they contain are the ones that can be translated to a Kindle file.

One of the stronger areas of book collecting these days is the private press limited edition, and other books notable more for their appearance than content. These may be editions of great books, but no one is expected to read them. Anyone who wants to actually read the text is expected to buy a "reading copy," not to disturb the pages of the deluxe edition. These are books in form, but not in purpose. They are like commemorative coins that are not meant to be circulated, or beautiful stamps from some obscure island nation never meant to be affixed to postage. They are art, not function. Are they even really "books?" It depends on whether you define "books" in terms of form or function.

What then of traditional, functional antiquarian and rare books, books that were created for their content, not appearance? It is the issue of the age. They do not look as beautiful on a coffee table, or even on a bookshelf. Most don't even look very special when opened. They are victims of the same issue that is starting to lead libraries to dispose of old books - they were created to disseminate the text within, but now that text is becoming more readily accessible through a digital copy.

Of course, there is something else very special about these books, something not even Frank's striking picture possesses - they are a part of our history. They are how we once passed down our collective knowledge, and entertained ourselves (and still do, though many other types of media now compete). We may need to infuse our children with a bit more concern for history to rekindle their interest in older books. We may also need to make book collecting easier to understand and more affordable to average budgets if book collecting is to survive. People collect coins and stamps, even though they will no more use them for their intended purposes of making change and mailing letters than they will use their collectible books for reading. However, coins and stamps have collecting guides that make it easy to know exactly what you (and everyone else) need to complete a collection. Book collecting requires far more thought and research, and often more money too. The positive is that book collecting offers unlimited possibilities, the opportunity to create a collection that is as unique and individual as a collection of quarters is common and impersonal. There is a part of us in books that not even the most expensive coins, stamps, or artwork possesses, but it remains an enormous challenge to get the next generation to understand the magic of books.
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