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

  • <center><b> The Library of Pierre Bergé<br>Auction Pierre Bergé & Associés<br>in association with Sotheby’s<br>Paris-Hôtel Drout<br>December 14, 2018<br><br>New York Exhibition<br>Oct. 16 to Oct. 20</b>
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> BARTHOLOMEUS ANGLICUS. <i>Le Proprietaire des choses.</i> Lyon, [circa 1484]. 150 000 / 200 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> MONTAIGNE, Michel de. <i>Essais.</i> Bordeaux, 1580. 400 000 / 500 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> PROUST, Marcel. <i>Du côté de chez Swann.</i> Paris, 1914 [1913]. 600 000 / 800 000 €
    <b>The Library of Pierre Bergé, NY exhibition 10/16 to 10/20:</b> MONSTRELET, Enguerrand de. <i>Le Premier [-Tiers] Volume des Cronicques.</i> Paris, circa 1503.<br>300 000 / 400 000 €
  • <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 Oct 16:</b> Jean de Mandeville, <i>Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte Land,</i> Strassburg, 1488. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Titus Livius, <i>Las Quatorze Decadas,</i> Zaragoza, 1520. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Printed <i>Book of Hours</i> with 20 full-page illustrations, Paris, 1509. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Jean La Fontaine, <i>Fables Choisies, mises en Vers,</i> first editions, Paris, 1668. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Giovanni Boccaccio, <i>De las mujeres illustres en romance,</i> Zaragoza, 1494. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Giovanni Boccaccio, third edition of the first published work of female biography, Louvain, 1487. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> José González Cabrera Bueno, <i>Navegación Especulativa, y Práctica,</i> Manila, 1734. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Andreas Vesalius, <i>Icones Anatomicae,</i> Munich, Bremer Press, 1934. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 16:</b> Joseph Boneta y Laplana, <i>Gritos del Purgatorio, y Medios para acallarlos,</i> Manila, 1711. $4,000 to $6,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions