Are Books a Bargain?

- by Michael Stillman

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A very special bowl, but...

Are books a bargain in the collectibles field? Prices for art have long been astronomical compared to even the greatest and most important of books or other examples of works on paper. It is not surprising that a da Vinci or Rembrandt would bring prices that transcend anything in the book world, but even a few decades-old painting by Andy Warhol can surpass the most historically important of books ever sold by several fold. Warhol was good at what he did, and his Campbell Soup cans were creative, but more so than the first printing of all of Shakespeare's plays combined? The market says "yes."

 

But, another collectible item recently sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong just caught my attention, particularly when juxtaposed with the highest priced sale ever in the books and paper field only two weeks earlier. On September 20, a private sale between the Community of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was announced. The Community of Christ is a smaller group of the Mormon faith, the Latter Day Saints the church generally known as the Mormons in Salt Lake City. The sale was of the original printer's manuscript copy of the Book of Mormon, which the Community of Christ had owned since the early twentieth century. The price was $35 million.

 

The item sold at Sotheby's was a bowl, albeit a very old bowl. Sotheby's describes it as "finely potted with shallow rounded sides rising from a slightly splayed foot, exquisitely veiled in a luminous and translucent bluish-green glaze suffused with a dense network of glistening ice crackles." However, before getting too carried away by the description, they also note, "A taste for a ware so extremely modest and unspectacular could only evolve from a world view that propagated modesty and honesty over ostentation and pretence." I have something that looks like this bowl, though obviously not as old or historic. Sotheby's bowl was from the Northern Song Dynasty of China, which dates from 960-1127. Most likely, it was produced between the years 1086-1106. That means you probably don't want to serve your Cheerios in it, as I would from my bowl. A display case would be a more appropriate venue.

 

I would not pretend to know anything about ancient Chinese ceramic ware. Clearly this item is both special and rare and a particularly desirable example of its kind. Still, as the picture will attest, it is a bowl. It does not represent the first appearance of great literature, enormous scientific discoveries, or ancient history going back even farther than the Song Dynasty. It is a "modest and unspectacular" bowl. There is very little of our great knowledge tied up in it. It sold for almost $38 million.

 

This modest bowl (technically a Ru ware brush washer, likely used to hold ink or paint) just sold for more than any book or manuscript has ever sold. It is evidently important to Chinese history, but surely it can't be that important. You could buy a dozen Shakespeare First Folios, maybe more, in top condition, and have plenty left over to buy a warehouse full of bowls for this. You could buy almost three of the eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America and the highest priced ever achieved at auction for a printed book, for that amount. China must have some books of comparable importance to its culture that you can buy for a lot less than $38 million. Perhaps one was written from the ink in this bowl. I suspect we may never see a printed work worth more than $38 million unless the government decides to print a $40 million bill.

 

None of this means you should run out and invest your life savings in books because the market someday must recognize this imbalance and push up the prices of books. The market is not so rational. Even ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) cautions that books should be bought because you love them, not as an investment. However, what this does say to me is that if you wish to collect something that is of historic and cultural significance, you can get far more bang for your buck with books than with bowls.