Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2010 Issue

Where "Coverless" and "Foxed" are Positive Selling Features

Restbookbundle

Coverless book bundles, as offered by Restoration Hardware.


By Michael Stillman

When is a book more desirable after its covers have been torn from the pages? When are terms such as "foxed" and "faded" a positive selling feature? Welcome to the new world of books as art. Wait long enough and just about anything can get turned upside down.

Books have been collected as objects of art at least as far back as Jean Grolier, who put together his library almost five centuries ago. In those days books did not come with covers. That was left to the owner, and Grolier responded by binding his in fine leather, with ornaments, gilding and the like. For Grolier it was more than just an attempt to make his house look nice. It was a reflection of how he valued books and the knowledge contained within.

In the 19th century, the concept of fine press books began to take root. Printers such as the legendary Kelmscott began to produce decorative books, works of art straight off the press. The fine presses would generally pick classic titles, but their editions, usually printed in short runs, were really meant more to be appreciated as physical objects, such as paintings, than to be read. If you wanted to read the book, you probably bought a standard edition so you wouldn't deface the fine copy. The wealthier collectors of books as art purchased titles from fine presses such as Kelmscott or Grabhorn, those without much money might opt for a collectible edition from the Franklin Mint. Usually such collectors had an appreciation for the author's writing, or at least believed they ought to, even if they never actually read the work. Still, their intention was to place something of beauty and erudition on their shelves.

In the past decade we have seen the development of books as art taken to another level, one where the text became totally irrelevant. This was the "books by the foot" phenomenon. These are books that are purchased by size, a foot of books, a yard of books, whatever. You don't even know what titles you will receive. The only promise is that the covers will look nice and you won't get two copies of the same book. There is no pretense of the buyer having any interest in the content. Any thought of interest in the content clearly disappears when the buyer does not know or even care what books he is buying, though stacking such books on your shelf may imply an attempt to convince others of an interest in their content.

Now this concept has been taken a step further. Restoration Hardware, a highly respected name in the field of fixtures and such for older homes, is offering "antique coverless book bundles." These are bundles of books with their covers missing ("liberated from their covers"), tied together with string. It is what you would do to bring them to a recycling center. They are what the trade would refer to as "reading copies" (or some dealers as "...otherwise very good"). Noting that these bundles are "rich with texture and intrigue," Restoration Hardware explains, "Liberated from their covers, stitched and bound with jute twine, the foxed and faded pages of old books become objêts d'art." This is the first time I've seen "foxed" used as a compliment. "Foxy," yes, but not "foxed." Nevertheless, that little roof symbol over the "e" in "objêts d'art" seals the deal that this is something of high class.

Maybe I shouldn't be put off by these bundles. In these days of electronic readers, perhaps we should be thankful for any use someone finds for printed texts. And, maybe this isn't all that different from what Grolier, or Kelmscott or Grabhorn did. It is just taken to a different level. We traveled down the road from pre-washed to pre-faded jeans, and finally, to "new" pairs that already had holes in them. These books are sort of like the jeans that come with holes already there. Bad is good. One word that does not jump out in my mind to describe either these bundles or holy jeans is "authentic." The traditionalist in me says that old books missing their covers should get that way from use, not because some big cutting machine sliced off their covers. Still, with millions of old books out there that circumstances have now made virtually worthless, maybe it is good that they now have one more chance to find their way into people's homes. Frankly, my book collection just got a lot more valuable.

If you would like to purchase some coverless books for your shelves, they are available for $29 per bundle. Click here to order yours.

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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