An Old Man in a New World – recounting my experience with rare books

- by Bruce E. McKinney


Collecting at the granular level

Starting over

Today I have been collecting the Hudson Valley more than 10 years.  The outcome is a different kind of collection, somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 items, much of it ephemera and photographs, a portion books, maps and manuscripts.  This pursuit, which was my first interest and the one always beyond my reach, is now the collection I finally have.

Its focus is Ulster County but surrounding counties are not ignored.  It is defined by what has been available.  Making up a wish list would not have worked because little of what I found was anticipated, an archive of more than 300 photographs of Hudson valley fires one example of the unexpected.

Another is the personal archives of James Copley, an itinerant painter active between 1849 and 1858 in upstate New York recording, in 160 watercolors, what he saw on summer trips.

Paintings and images of the Hudson Valley by artists famous and not, are also important to the collection and personally appealing for they bring the subject to life.  –  works by Ernest Lawson, George Bellows, F. B. Cramer, and N. Lusice.

It also turned out that images of sundry disasters in the county and nearby, such things as train and railroad wrecks, survived even as the equipment, buildings and occasional victims they show, perished.  Fires and boat disasters were also recorded, the genre and these images unknown to me until they appeared randomly on eBay years ago.

And of course there is printed material; broadsides and pamphlets in intimidating quantities; books as well including about 450 items printed by Joel Munsell of Albany between 1834 and 1871, and 40 or 50 books printed by Paraclette Potter of Poughkeepsie between 1804 and 1837.  And there are newspapers, bound years of them, mostly from Poughkeepsie from the years 1804 to 1850.

Bill Heidgerd suggested I focus on two obscure pieces.  Once I found them in multiple copies what else could I do?  The answer it turned out was to find everything else.  And then, as Steve Jobs famously said, there’s one more thing.

An unanticipated outcome of Mr. Heidgerd’s introduction to the world of old books and ancient paper would be my eventual interest in updating the splintered record keeping of auctions worldwide into a single unified database.  True, New Paltz was already well represented in both the history and rare book fields by Peter Force, the compiler of Force’s Tracks in the early 19th century, Mr. Force once, if briefly, a New Paltz resident.  That another native might, 180 years later, make a further contribution would have seemed an unlikely possibility.  Nevertheless…   

What’s the AED becomes

Today, more than a decade after AE came to life the project’s principal database, now called the AED, recently contained more than 4.8 million records with additional material added every few days. It has become a powerful collecting tool now widely used by the serious to identify, describe and price material.  It is, in short, what the field was always going to someday need - to get prices readjusted in this now rapidly changing world.

It has also developed predictive capabilities, reappearances of important material now the subject of probabilities that tend to be very accurate.  Patterns in pricing have also emerged, scarce and desirable books rising, the out-of-fashion and unwanted sagging if not plunging.  It turns out a single record gives facts, ten thousand tell a story.

At somewhere around 9,000,000 records the AED will have every scrap of data for almost all auctions in the works on paper field for North America, Europe, South America and Australia from 1875 to yesterday.  It’s a large project and at this point probably necessary to the future of the field.  Prices, long maintained artificially at high levels by the obscuring of transaction history, are becoming normalized at lower levels making it possible for traditional buyers, institutions and collectors to once again find interesting material at reasonable prices both in the rooms and in the catalogues of dealers whose prices reflect the changing market.  It hasn't always easy but it is necessary.