Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2010 Issue

Gilding the Lilly Revisited: <i>New book a market-maker for US decorative bindings</i>


Minsky's Art of American Book Covers 1875-1931.

Future values of Decorative Bindings
It can't hurt future values that he has placed two of his three exhibits with very spiffy university libraries at undisclosed prices and that the third is now being shopped privately by his "subscribers". But we think this title will sell out primarily because it fills a void we didn't know existed.

In historical terms none of these books is that old, but he asserts that some of his picks -- beautiful examples of traditional workmanship and an older esthetic -- are no longer so easy to find.

"It's not even 10 or 15 years ago many of these books were $5 or less," Minsky says, commenting on current values for books of this era. "Very few people were interested in book cover art. Even five years ago the market for these was fairly quiet. I bought a gorgeous copy of Calderon's Prisoner, a Margaret Armstrong cover, for $40 on Abebooks (shown on p. 18). Looking today there are three copies listed, $100 to $200, with the best one sunned, soiled, rubbed and bumped. "Many of the books in my first exhibition have totally disappeared from the online listings and have not been seen at auction or on eBay for years."

"Condition is important when acquiring books for their cover art," he continues, "and finding pristine copies, or even reasonably nice ones, has become difficult. None of today's listed copies of the 1904 Florence Lundborg design on Yosemite Legends is in as fine condition as the one I got five years ago for $100 (Minsky. 83), and the best available is offered at $375."

"Yet," he says, "there are still many bargains to be found, even in the under $30 range, just by keeping your eyes open. Compared to other art forms the prices of original book cover art are still incredibly low."

The book as "object
It also doesn't hurt the case for rising values that a great deal of today's antiquarian bookseller rhetoric has shifted from the book as a carrier of text/content/information to a renewed interest in the book as an "object."

So be it - most of these eye-catching covers certainly look trendy now. It may be stretching it to call it the return of the gilded lily, but Minsky definitely intrigues the viewer with different combinations of foils, stamps, dies, sculptural effects, split fountains and all the rest. This repertoire has been with us for a very long time, but all of it looks new, beautiful, exciting, and dare we say undervalued in the context of his new book.

What could be more of a trendy object than a book that sparkles in your hand - and takes on a different hue depending on how the sun hits the gold leaf? There are lots of antique examples of this kind of work in the pages of the new book. Surprisingly, the very vivid gold leaf design on its cover is uncredited.

Asked about its origin the author says, "I adapted it from the unsigned, unattributed cover of an undated Crowell edition of The Abbé Daniel by Theuriet (copyright 1884, but a later printing) that was in my first exhibition. It was stamped in flat (bright) gold. What I did to the design, besides removing the border and reshaping it to fit this cover, was add textures to the gold so parts of the design would light up or go dark as the viewing angle or the light changed."

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