Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2003 Issue

Book Business Past in Head-on Collision

Uncle Tom's Adventure in a Hollow Log. Poughkeepsie, New York. $5.00 on eBay


By Bruce McKinney

Books are sold in many places: in book stores, through book sellers on line, through auctions and dispersals. Collectable book buying has been for several centuries a matter of luck and cunning that has favored the highly educated and those with elephantine memories. It has always been like gold mining. You had to find the vein. Few people had the knowledge, fewer still the luck. Everyone believes the great material is out there but there has been no easy way to find it. Better organized dealers and collectors have been using online selling sites for most of a decade. But the only “cash” market for most collectors has been auctions and they are limited in the types of material they sell. For the much broader market of sellers there is eBay.

For decades there has been no easy way to dispose of books accumulated over a collecting career. They have been acquired from dealers and second-hand shops, at library fairs, auctions, rummage sales and flea markets and over time become collections. They are the reminders of summer trips across the mid-west and free afternoons in the dust bins of New York’s used book shops. Their common thread is often only apparent to the collector who bought because they looked interesting, were cheap, might make a gift (but were rarely given away) or occasionally actually had a solid connection to a “collecting” theme In many cases, these accumulations became, in time, collections – disparate and constructed with uncertain glue – but nevertheless collections. Pretty bindings, 19th century fiction, signed copies, all of them interesting debris. And they have never been easy to re-sell. Buying the right material at the right price was difficult: selling it for its fair valuation almost impossible.

eBay and the listing sites have changed this equation for both buyers and sellers. eBay in particular makes it possible to offer material that, while not necessarily perfectly described, is relatively easy to understand. Part of the beauty of eBay is that there is room for innocence. They make a large enough market that great material is generally identified by potential buyers whether or not it is understood by the sellers. Then of course there are occasional fireworks and realized prices to make the buyer blush and the seller smile. And there is always an ocean of material. Pieces large and small, old and new, rare and common all crowd eBay’s selling aisles. It is in fact the never-ending electronic garage sale. It is the garden in which ten thousand collecting seeds germinate, a hundred thousand collectors are nourished and in time, many collectors’ blooms harvested: all in a single place over the continuum of time.

eBay speaks to the careful accumulator, who now becomes a seller, in terms they understand – a few percent commission, relatively small listing fees and a display format that makes amateur descriptions understandable. It may have taken years to build the collection but until recently such collections could rarely find the thin but appreciative audience that might value them the way the collector/accumulator does. Books, that in the past that were often consigned to the attic, now find willing buyers across town, across the state, across the country and even around the globe – more often than not – through eBay. It is the “everyman’s” cash market. It’s not the only way to sell but for consignors it’s a good way to sell. They don’t need to be a book dealer to do it.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [RUTH, George Herman “Babe” (1895-1948)]. Signed photograph. Circa 1930s. 191 x 248 mm. $1,500 to $2,500.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HARRISON, Benjamin. Document signed (“Benj Harrison”) as governor of Virginia, certifying the service of Daniel Cumbo, a Black Revolutionary soldier. $6,000 to $9,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: ONE OF THE FIRST PRINTED ANNOUNCEMENTS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. $4,000 to $6,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: FIRST PRINTING OF LINCOLN’S IMMORTAL GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. $4,000 to $6,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HIGHLY IMPORTANT MORMON ARCHIVE. ALLEY, George. Archive of 23 Autograph Letters Signed by Mormon Convert George Alley to His Brother Joseph Alley. $10,000 to $20,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [AVIATION]. [ARMSTRONG, Neil A.] Aviation Hall of Fame Gold Medal MS64 NGC, Awarded to Neil Armstrong in 1979. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: NEWLY DISCOVERED FIRST PRINTING OF "WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE... " FROM THE ONLY NEWSPAPER ACTUALLY ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL PROCESSION. $4,000 to $8,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: THE MOST IMPORTANT GEORGE WASHINGTON DOCUMENT IN PRIVATE HANDS; GEORGE WASHINGTON’S COMMISSION AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF, 1775, ONE OF ONLY TWO ORIGINALS. $150,000 to $250,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: A VERY RARE ACCOUNT OF BLACKBEARD’S DEATH AND ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PIRATE ITEMS EXTANT. $3,000 to $5,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: EDISON, Thomas. Patent for Edison’s Improvements on the Electric-Light, No. 219,628. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent Office], 16 September 1879. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [VIETNAM WAR]. The original pen used by Secretary of State William P. Rogers to sign the Vietnam Peace Agreement, Paris, 27 January 1973. $10,000 to $15,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: SONS OF LIBERTY FOUNDER COLONEL BARRÉ ANNOTATED TITLE-PAGE, “WHICH OUGHT TO ROUSE UP BRITISH ATTENTION”. $4,000 to $6,000.

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