Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2010 Issue

What Can John Lennon Tell Us About The Book Market?

Dayinlife

John Lennon's handwritten lyrics to A Day In The Life, courtesy of Sotheby's.


By Michael Stillman

Items in the books, manuscripts and ephemera field do not have to be antiquarian to bring in big money. Indeed, we are witnessing something of a changing of the guard in what is collectible, as personally relevant may be gaining ground on historically significant. It is a point worth understanding in building collections or building inventory to sell to the new collector.

Last month, Sotheby's held a major auction of books and manuscripts. It included signed items by Washington and Lincoln. All told, it took in $2.35 million, with the runner-up piece taking in $218,500. However, the highest priced item topped that by almost $1 million, and took in more than half of the total realized by the entire sale. Rather than being one of the older documents, some of which dated back many centuries, it was one of the newest. Penned in 1967, it was the handwritten original lyrics to John Lennon's A Day in the Life. For those struggling to place it, that's the one that begins "I read the news today, oh boy."

Lennon's handwritten lyrics on a single sheet of paper took in a healthy $1,202,500, well above the estimate of $500,000 - $700,000. One side of the paper has the original draft in cursive, while the other has a neater, printed (in capital letters) rendition. It turns out the initial lyrics were very close to the ones used. Lennon did not do a lot of rewriting.

The similarity between roughly written first lyrics and the actual song may weigh in on the controversy surrounding those lyrics. This song has been analyzed for its deeper meaning as much as anything by Bob Dylan. Who was Lennon really referring to as "blowing his mind out," was the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, referring to needle marks or some other hidden meaning, was "turning you on" a drug reference? Lennon maintained that he picked up the lyrics from some stories he read in the newspaper that day, not because he was trying to pass off some inscrutable hidden messages. The hurried look of the first draft, and lack of substantial changes thereafter, makes one think that Lennon wrote the song as he explained it, not as a vehicle for complex hidden meanings.

Sotheby's also sold another important document last month, and while the results were certainly respectable, they did not blow the estimators away. An early copy of the Declaration of Independence sold for $572,500, just short of the estimate range of $600,000-$800,000. This copy was printed in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 15 or 16 of 1776. News traveled slowly in those days, so it took a little while for the original news to reach Massachusetts, and copies to be printed locally and spread around to the various towns in the Commonwealth.

This was just an isolated event, but there is an interesting comparison between these two auctions. The historic, long highly collectible Declaration of Independence did fine, but not exceptional. The far more recent Lennon document blew everyone away. It did benefit, according to Sotheby's, from having two very determined bidders fighting for it. Still, it is interesting to note that the Declaration, expected to sell for $100,000 more than the Lennon lyrics, sold for $630,000 less, or well under half as much. While the buyer of the latter was not identified, we can presume he or she grew up with Lennon's music, that his life was contemporary to Lennon's. The same clearly cannot be said of the buyer of the Declaration of Independence.

We realize that a couple of random samples do not prove a general case. Nevertheless, there are other examples of buyers bidding up items contemporary to their own lives, rather than that of long ago ancestors. A copy of the first Superman comic sold for $1.5 million earlier this year, and a Batman comic also topped a million. These are hardly works of historic importance, great writing or great art, but they are part of the lives of today's middle age and younger collectors. These people bought comics and Beatles records when they were young, but not copies of the Declaration of Independence. Now, they are collecting the things they know best.

John Lennon taught us about peace and love. Now, perhaps, he is teaching us something about the direction of book collecting.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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.
  • <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

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