Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

Your Lying Heart

Tobr

Thieves of Book Row - a great read

Books have for more than a hundred years been common and their principle purpose – to carry information to the interested.   A few among these many volumes have become collectible, the best of them talisman of taste, beauty or priority and sometimes all three.  Such books are sometimes first impressions, others wonderful presentations and annotated copies, others still rare and very rare, the best of them highly collectible.

While books are common the eye to appreciate their finer points and physical attributes is rare.  Everyone has an opinion but only a few have perspective.    For those who ‘know’ the opportunities are many.  For those that don’t the opportunities to make mistakes are limitless.

Such opportunities for the knowledgeable divide between the legal and illegal.  The legal possibilities include browsing books offered for sale, negotiating and buying what you believe to be attractively priced.  More difficult are the situations where the potential buyer is asked to make an offer.  Many dealers prefer that the seller state their price.  At a minimum they want to understand seller expectations and if they can, their perspective on value and price.

Sellers, understandably, will be optimistic and buyers, understandably cautious.  Books sell but not so easily as they once did.  Sellers will refer to their having seen similar things on Abe for thousands and buyers will point out “yes but many other copies were offered for less and, in any event, it is sales, not listings, that matter.”

Because valuing books has always been both an art and a science books have been more subject to theft than objects whose value is implicit.  Gold bars get locked up, iron bars do not and if those working with such material do not understand the difference they may insufficiently protect the valuable objects.  In such circumstances the unethical have historically preyed upon the innocent.  For libraries the primary goal is always to make material accessible while trying to ensure that access is not abused.  The outcome has been increasing security - protecting the material, often the important and sometimes the not, the rare and not and doing so at the expense of the library’s primary mission, to provide access.
  

It is an old problem, probably as old as books themselves and one made more difficult by rising values that incentivize theft.  Into the history of book and document theft we have two books that illuminate the problem, Jeremy Norman’s account of 19th theft [that I wrote about this past month] and now Travis McDade’s account of library theft in the early decades of the 20th century.

Jeremy Norman’s Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri is the account of the notorious pillager of libraries who enjoyed exceptional access to European libraries in the 19th century and “collected” in the era before consistent documentation existed. He could simply walk off with treasures, often leaving no trace, other times substituting inferior copies for gems.  Collections, in his era [1820-1865] were often defenseless, the Count could not resist and there was no comprehensive system to easily identify a collection’s holdings.  A universal identification system would begin to be implemented in the 1870’s, to make retrieval easier and identify the missing and misplaced.  By that time the Count was retired.
  

Rising concern for security would then require thieves employ more sophisticated approaches.
  

We then cross the Atlantic to New York where in the late 19th century the Astor and Lenox collections were gifted to the New York Public Library and serious efforts made to both provide and control access to what was becoming a world-class collection of old and rare books.  Access versus security would become a long-term issue and the New York Public Library be among the first to try to systematically address the issue.

By the first decades of the 20th century two other factors were altering the stakes.  Institutions were beginning to collect broadly and prices were rising.  The decision to steal is a risk-reward calculation and rising prices made old and collectible books more appealing targets.  Unfortunately prices rose more quickly than institutions responded and it made theft in the early decades of the 20th century a high-reward low-risk undertaking that attracted an attentive audience of thieves.

For insight about this period, we have Thieves of Book Row by Travis McDade.  In it he details the history of book theft in New York and New England beginning with some history of the 1890s and continuing into the mid-1930s.  It turns out that libraries, torn between protection and access, both believed in the honesty of patrons and often did not understand that the street value of their material that was sometimes surging in the low-tax, high reward environment that propelled the 10% down stock market.   America was betting on its future and rare books in the 1910-1929 period a good bet too.  Later, with the onset of the depression and the end of the upward spiral in prices there would also soon be fewer jobs and more desperate men.  Into this downturn rare books also lost value but many were still valuable enough to steal and the crime both un and under-reported and judges, when the apprehended were taken to court, sympathetic to the man who wanted to read too much.

In the downturn, with money tight, libraries did not have money to increase security even as the theft problem was becoming apparent.  So, too often books were there for the taking.  Mr. McDade’s account, a very well written fact filled, intense and highly entertaining account, brings this period to life.

Libraries ultimately, learning of sin in the world, became cautious and rare book prices, after a 15-year side trip to hell [1930-1944], recovered and have since gone on to set records year after year, collectible material now often 50 to 100 times more valuable than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.  And this has left libraries with a predicament.  The material, once freely available, is now subject to high security, limits on aisle grazing, and many rules to limit damage to increasingly fragile material.   But the greater goal for libraries has been broad access and this is impaired and it’s a shame for the number of people who steal is inevitably small and the number of people affected by limited access large.

The issue of access will be resolved with online access to full texts.  This is already occurring and will increase and improve so scholars and the interested will find what they seek.  Whether this will help book collecting is another matter and one can only hope.

It turns out that thieves not only stole books, they may have also stolen some of the future for book collectors who without physical contact with the material and the wisdom and perspective of rare book librarians to bring the field to life, may never sense the power of this category of collecting.
        

One is also then left to wonder when the complete texts of collectible books will be accessible on line and then of course the inevitable ‘what’s next.’  Will libraries maintain their collections or dispose of them?  If they are to sell or thin them there will need to an audience open to buying.   With shops closing and access to rare books in libraries restricted building a new audience will be a challenge.

Here are Amazon links to both books mentioned in this article.  Both are important.

Norman's Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel

Dade's Thieves of Book Row

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>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.
  • <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Published Half Plate Ambrotype of a North Carolina Confederate Officer. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two 19th Century Books Pertaining to Canada's Red River Settlement. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two Books With Fore-Edge Paintings of British Architectual Landmarks. $400 to $600
    <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), "Torte a la Dobosch" from <i>Wild Raspberries</i>. $1,000 to $3,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), <i>Pop Shop II,</i> One Plate screenprint in colors, on wove paper, 1998. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756-1827), Twenty-Two Prints from the <i>Tours of Dr. Syntax</i>. $500 to $1,000

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