Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2014 Issue

Mr. Munsell: waiting quietly

Joel Munsell was a respected and prosperous publisher of newspapers and books. His grave is in Lot 47, Section 4, just up the hill from the cemetery's office on South Ridge Road. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

On a grassy knoll in Albany, New York Joel Munsell rests as he has since 1880 when his printer’s heart ran out of ink.  Mr. Munsell was a local printer who left an outsized mark that was once visible, slipped from view, and has since slowly reemerged.  Mr. Munsell’s printing exploits were both prodigious and modest.  Those authors with the best books and those fussy about printing quality took their manuscripts to Van Benthuysen Steam Printers to turn them into printed works.  Mr. Munsell’s strength was in the works of modest circumstances where a few hundred copies would be enough to say, “it’s in print.”

 

He printed almost everything that could be printed and himself sent his best material to other printers when the requirements were more delicate and the client expectations higher.

 

I’m remembering Mr. Munsell again this year, reminded of him and his contributions by a story and photo in the Albany Times Union on December 5th.  It is nice to see he is remembered.

 

His lasting achievement was one of his shortest print runs, a bibliography of his printings, Bibliotheca Munselliana, in 1871 that sought to list by year all printings issuing from his presses during the years 1834 to spring of 1871.  It is an impressive, if somewhat defective, list providing information on 2,268 press runs, five hundred of which show up from time to time.  The rest fall somewhere between never happened and no one cares or possibly are so mis-described as to be unrecognizable.  Certainly many carried someone else’s indicia or no indicia at all.  It’s a shame because Mr. Munsell left us with the makings of a great book collector’s parlor game:  where are these missing titles? 

 

The American Antiquarian Society that has many of Mr. Munsell’s papers lists 243 of his titles.  I have, over the past decade acquired about 450, little of it expensive, a success based mostly on diligence and interest rather than money.  I find his career interesting because, for 990 of the 2,268 entries in his bibliography he listed the quantities printed.  This makes it possible to calculate probabilities of reappearance based on the number of copies printed and their number of reappearances that incidentally mostly occur on listing rather than auction sites because most of his printings are today more eBay-ish than Christie’s or Sotheby’s. 

 

Knowing the quantity is important of course but so too are the forms; pamphlets, books in paper covers, books in hard cover, once in a long while single sheets and occasionally maps.  Survival rates by form vary widely.  Subjects, it turns out, also predict survival.  Murder accounts survive while insurance company balance sheets have not.  Most of what he printed today falls into the broadest and vaguest printing category – ephemera, an area that is becoming better understood but will not be fully mapped for another two decades. 

 

All the variables of his printing allowed for, his production provides clarity on both 19th century printing and survival rates into the current era.   His printer’s bibliography is the unique key, the calculations and estimates determined or deduced from his quantities and their chance reappearances the chance for the biblio-didact to play more chess than checkers. 

 

My own experience with the Munsell material is the basis of one of the most interesting aspects of the Americana Exchange, the ability, for over 400,000 old and collectible printed items to calculate their probabilities of reappearance.  This began with my study of the Munsell material.

 

So it is refreshing to see that Mr. Munsell is still making the local newspaper, the Times Union in Albany and that, his story went infectious if not viral online.  Mr. Munsell was himself a newspaper man in and out of the business most of his life and I believe he would find it interesting that his work and his accomplishments are still noted in distant circles and written about online.  Were he alive today he would be 205.

 

His gravestone is made of granite and that’s good thing.  Sand stone surrenders its details to rain, snow and time.  Granite will also lose its battle but not for a thousand years.  In that time, the mystery of his missing printings that never seem to show up will be resolved by some math quant that figures out how to unearth them.

 

If so, there will be an “aha” moment, among scholars and readers of the Albany Times Union and AE Monthly.  Until then we can wait as Mr. Munsell is waiting:  quietly.

Rare Book Monthly

  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • 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
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

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