Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2009 Issue

Where Goes the Collectible Book?

Christiecurtisindians

Edward Curtis' North American Indian did not sell until after the auction.


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.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <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>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.

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