Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2003 Issue

American Historical Novels:<br>Scribner&#146;s Catalogue 115 Revisited

Scribner3

Someone bought one of these items and did incredibly well.


As I mentioned earlier, when the catalogue was published the retail value of all 228 items was $6,725.  For the forty items I bought recently Scribner’s prices totaled $904.00 compared to the $3,114.75 I paid.  That cost difference is almost exactly a 2% increase compounded annually over the 65 years since the catalogue was issued.  In pursuing these books I felt I had the solid judgment of Scribner’s rare book department to rely on and a substantial amount of pricing data from our own historical records and ABE’s current offerings. By comparison, the value of $904 in 1938 expressed in inflation adjusted dollars today is $10,900. These books have significantly underperformed inflation.

In looking more carefully at the available material I found that items that had not appreciated often were simply out-of-favor or forgotten.  The world can only focus on so many things at a time and many of these books simply slipped into forgetfulness.  They are of course generally not marquee books.  In some cases they weren’t familiar to the sellers and in other cases sellers simply set a price they would accept.  In other cases prices were set deliberately low to find buyers.  In the majority of cases these books were online for a long time.  My impression is that the median time from first listing to sale was at least a year although I hasten to say this is only an estimate.  Sellers, when finally off-loading their Edsalls, are not about to tell the buyer they had all but given up hope of ever getting their money out of such books.  They, like Charon, look to hand their oars to someone else.

Certainly some of the material was over-priced in 1938 relative to the other items in the catalogue and certainly some of the material was under-priced. Generally the relative pricing seems to make sense with a few sterling exceptions. There was a 1936 first edition advance copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind with the dust jacket, signed by the author, offered in this catalogue for $25. The book was already very popular as the $25 price suggests. A year later though Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable made the book immortal and today’s prices reflect it. On ABE there are 7 signed copies of the first edition with dust jacket ranging in price from $3,450 to $14,900 for the second printing that seems a bit over the top. Perhaps the seller just doesn’t give a damn.

With this article are two ralated documents. One is a list of all books in the American Historical Novels catalogue. It is found as a separate piece on the Æ Monthly home page under the title American Historical Fiction Chart - here provided as a link. I have truncated the titles but also included information that will facilitate net searches for those who wish to make the effort. It is very interesting.

Searching: I use ABE and freely admit there are plenty of other sites with interesting books to buy. I like the flexibility of their searches and the scale of their listings. I generally searched the author’s last name and the printing date first. I found that using the complete title sometimes omitted matches. I also found that, just because I didn’t find matches using a first set of terms, I might still find the book under some other combination of terms. Flexibility in searching is important. And so is brevity. Put in the least amount of information to maximize your search results. Add information to your search criteria to refine your choices.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Scott Joplin, <i>Treemonisha: Opera in Three Acts,</i> New York, 1911. Sold March 24 — $40,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Louisa May Alcott, autograph letter signed, 1868. Sold June 2 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Anne Bradstreet, <i>Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight,</i> Boston, 1758. Sold June 2 — $21,250.
    <b>Swann:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Published according to the true Originall Copies. The Second Impression,</i> London, 1632. Sold May 5 — $161,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> John Bachmann, <i>Panorama of the Seat of War,</i> New York, 1861-62. Sold June 23 — $35,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Bronte, <i>Jane Eyre,</i> first edition, London, 1847. Sold June 16 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Elihu Vedder, <i>Simple Simon, His Book,</i> 1913. Sold June 9 — $12,350.
    <b>Swann:</b> Frederick Catherwood, <i>Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan,</i> London, 1844. Sold April 7 — $37,500.

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