Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2003 Issue

A True Rarity:An Owner Organized Auction

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By Mike Stillman

An unusual auction took place in the upper right-hand corner of your U.S. map on July 10. In Bangor, Maine, the collection of printed material from Maine of Edward Thompson was sold at auction. It wasn’t really a “collection,” as we’ll explain shortly, but it was one of the more complete compilations of Maine items you’re likely to find. While the “collection” is now dispersed, the catalogue remains, and is a must-have for anyone who collects printed Maine.

What makes the Thompson auction unusual is that the owner wrote his own catalogue and arranged for his auction. The auction was conducted by local auctioneer Robert Croul. And the material wasn’t really a “collection” because Thompson wasn’t a collector. He was (and still is) a bookseller. However, his business has moved on from its focus on Maine to broader material.

Thompson’s entry into the book, print, maps and ephemera business was very unusual. Most booksellers will have a story such as a love of old books as a child blossoming into a career. In Edward Thompson’s case, it was an eye injury. In the 1960’s, Thompson explains, he was a “birder” (birdwatcher). In 1971, he suffered a serious eye injury which took two years to heal. Bird watching was no longer possible. “I was a basket case mentally.” So instead, he began attending antique auctions, where he could sit in the shade, away from the glare. He started by buying prints of birds, but that quickly spread to other printed items.

However, Thompson never really became a collector. He quickly began buying and selling the material he found. Thompson does collect, but not the material he sells. He explains that if he collected what he sells, he would always be selling his second best material to his customers. “I’d resent that as a collector.” What does he collect? 10th through 17th century Islamic tiles. “That’s what I collect and I would not part with it. My heirs can sell it but I won’t.”

At one time, Thompson had a large business in Maine items. He used to do as many as twenty shows a year in Maine. In time, his business evolved to being more national in scope. “I used to brag I had the highest prices,” Thompson says. The result was that not everything sold. So, as his business shifted, Thompson still had an accumulation of Maine material he couldn’t move. He decided to hold an auction. However, rather than just selling what he had, he decided to complete the collection first. For the past two years he bought the missing pieces from his collection, so that when the auction was held a few weeks ago, it was complete. His most expensive purchase to complete the collection was a $20,000 map. Thompson expected to lose money on the item, but when the hammer came down, the final bid was $23,000 (plus auctioneer’s commission).

As to what led him to putting on the auction himself, Thompson noted that many collections are sold after the owner dies, when, obviously, the owner can’t personally conduct an auction. “I decided not to die first.” As for the massive task of putting together the catalogue (it’s 519 pages), he comments that he enjoys writing. The hard part was the editing, which Thompson was stuck with.

Holding the auction in Bangor was an easy decision. Thompson felt that the collection was not large enough for the major auction houses. He thought of holding it along the Maine seacoast, as many wealthy people summer there. Ultimately, he concluded that people who were interested in his material would buy wherever he held the auction, so he decided to stick with his home base. Besides, there was more room available for the 260 linear feet of maps that were put on display. Based on the results, the choice of Bangor was fine.

“We’re very happy how it worked out,” Thompson says. “The only people happier are the IRS.” Of the 445 items in the catalogue, only six were passed. Three of these were sold shortly after the auction. Two other items brought in late were also unsold. Thompson explains that the nearly complete sell through can be

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