I’ve known for many years that book collecting, if it was ever only books, is rarely books alone today. Book collecting was once a huge field that required decades of experience. Today informational databases approach Einstein levels of volume and complexity providing clear pictures of rarity and value while selling databases such as Abe Books and Biblio show enormous availability. The word rare has always been a general term but the best databases today show it item by item, selling sites to tell you how many are available and RBH to tell you what the market is saying it’s worth.
As a practical matter as a collector of Hudson Valley material I’ve found increasing change, even volatility, in what has long been a gradually rising market. More and better material continues coming out and to achieve good results while plebian material is losing ground. Behind this activity it appears that dealers and book collectors are aging-out, recognizing it’s time to sell. The effect is an increasingly tense flow of better and better collectible material that is prompting auction houses to require even better material and lower estimates to get into their rooms. It’s noticeable and exciting.
As a collector, now 70 but soon enough 71, I understand my obligation to organize my collection of Hudson River Valley material in ways that will be understandable to the auction house, institutions or dealer that will sweep clean my Aegean Stables. I love the acquisitions but understand that what is transparent and appealing to me will be, for the most part, a burden to others.
So I’m re-organizing this collection as a sale and have started with the assumption that the 5,000 items I have will be fitted into about three hundred lots. To do it I’m giving myself until the end of August in 2018 to complete this work. The auction house or dealer who takes this upon themselves, hopefully well into the future, will understand what they have as will my family. This example of the emerging new collecting seems to naturally focus on deeper, narrower, more intense subjects. Whether there’s a market for this remains to be seen but as a collector, it’s a beautiful experience.
So here are a few lots. I may have eight hundred photographic postcards of the mid-Hudson Valley. Most will be a single lot I think while about sixty-five, all disasters of one type or another, will be a separate and very appealing lot.
One room in our house contains only Joel Munsell printings. Mr. Munsell was kind enough to document his output beginning in 1834 and continuing into the spring of 1871 and lists the number of copies printed for 990 of the 2,278 items he owned up to. He published books, but was more important in the printing of short-lived and quickly forgotten pamphlets. He also printed dealer catalogues. I believe I have north of four hundred of his works. This collection may in time help unravel two mysteries; why haven’t I been able to find examples of more of his works and, for the items known for which he has provided quantities printed, how do the quantities relate to appearances in libraries, at auction and online. That research so far raises almost as many questions as it answers. This collection which has been acquired item by item over fifteen years will be sold as a single lot without a reserve. It is a compelling collection but only one lot.
Even as I’m looking [distantly] into the abyss I’m of course also still collecting and am grateful that my wife accepts my, to quote Groucho Marx approach, “hello I must be going.” The impulse to collect increases with age, inevitably leading to the collector’s dying words, “I’ll take it!” So of course I’m still buying.
For those that read my stories many know I have become enamored with Abraham Tomlinson, the Dutchess County insurance agent who acquired Revolutionary War material during the period 1840 to 1858. He was not a collector but rather, in my opinion, an accumulator who once he had built his museum, marketed it to various New York libraries, and sold it to the Mercantile Library by if not before, 1860. I have Tomlinson’s notes about what he was offering as well as Radford Curdy’s, the Dutchess County historian’s update seventy-five years later, to guide me and I now consider the possibility of pursuing pieces of his collection as they re-appear. It sounds difficult but the task is made immeasurably easier by the fact that the material that passed through the hands of the Mercantile Library appears to have been stamped as a Tomlinson item. Today that’s a no-no but I’m glad they did it. Some of his material will certainly reappear if for no other reason than that he had so much and we now have sixty years of documented reappearances, about twenty at auction, dating to the 1940’s.
I also have paintings, both some somewhat important examples and many others that will resonate only with people very attached to the mid-Hudson Valley. I frankly love these paintings, particularly the emotionally dark ones because the Ulster County I grew up in was dark. Altogether I have about thirty of them.
And there are lithographs. I really don’t know how many but I can spend hours looking at them one by one.
And water colors. By absolutely a stroke of luck I was asked to look at a collection of 160 watercolors and drawings painted by - - - - -. Two young men wanted to part with them for money and I paid $7,000. This collection will someday be a single unreserved lot. Mr. 0000 had an excellent eye for detail. Mr. ----- had a canny eye which he used to great effect beginning in late 1848 and continuing into the final years of the 1850’s. This is life in the Hudson Valley as he saw it, carefully detailed, a decade before photography would begin to be common.
And then there are Sanborn Atlases. These generally large format books presented towns, cities and businesses [such as railroads] beginning in the 1870’s and continuing into the 1940’s. These maps are so detailed they almost defy imagination. I have perhaps a half dozen and would love to buy more.
So this is a piece of what I have collected. It’s small piece but I’m simply getting under way. How dealers or auction houses will feel about the material is difficult to guess. In time, we’ll know. For now, it’s simply a pleasure.