Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2017 Issue

Are Books a Bargain?

Bc18b7c5-df02-4cd9-b1cb-46029b69944d

A very special bowl, but...

Are books a bargain in the collectibles field? Prices for art have long been astronomical compared to even the greatest and most important of books or other examples of works on paper. It is not surprising that a da Vinci or Rembrandt would bring prices that transcend anything in the book world, but even a few decades-old painting by Andy Warhol can surpass the most historically important of books ever sold by several fold. Warhol was good at what he did, and his Campbell Soup cans were creative, but more so than the first printing of all of Shakespeare's plays combined? The market says "yes."

 

But, another collectible item recently sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong just caught my attention, particularly when juxtaposed with the highest priced sale ever in the books and paper field only two weeks earlier. On September 20, a private sale between the Community of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was announced. The Community of Christ is a smaller group of the Mormon faith, the Latter Day Saints the church generally known as the Mormons in Salt Lake City. The sale was of the original printer's manuscript copy of the Book of Mormon, which the Community of Christ had owned since the early twentieth century. The price was $35 million.

 

The item sold at Sotheby's was a bowl, albeit a very old bowl. Sotheby's describes it as "finely potted with shallow rounded sides rising from a slightly splayed foot, exquisitely veiled in a luminous and translucent bluish-green glaze suffused with a dense network of glistening ice crackles." However, before getting too carried away by the description, they also note, "A taste for a ware so extremely modest and unspectacular could only evolve from a world view that propagated modesty and honesty over ostentation and pretence." I have something that looks like this bowl, though obviously not as old or historic. Sotheby's bowl was from the Northern Song Dynasty of China, which dates from 960-1127. Most likely, it was produced between the years 1086-1106. That means you probably don't want to serve your Cheerios in it, as I would from my bowl. A display case would be a more appropriate venue.

 

I would not pretend to know anything about ancient Chinese ceramic ware. Clearly this item is both special and rare and a particularly desirable example of its kind. Still, as the picture will attest, it is a bowl. It does not represent the first appearance of great literature, enormous scientific discoveries, or ancient history going back even farther than the Song Dynasty. It is a "modest and unspectacular" bowl. There is very little of our great knowledge tied up in it. It sold for almost $38 million.

 

This modest bowl (technically a Ru ware brush washer, likely used to hold ink or paint) just sold for more than any book or manuscript has ever sold. It is evidently important to Chinese history, but surely it can't be that important. You could buy a dozen Shakespeare First Folios, maybe more, in top condition, and have plenty left over to buy a warehouse full of bowls for this. You could buy almost three of the eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America and the highest priced ever achieved at auction for a printed book, for that amount. China must have some books of comparable importance to its culture that you can buy for a lot less than $38 million. Perhaps one was written from the ink in this bowl. I suspect we may never see a printed work worth more than $38 million unless the government decides to print a $40 million bill.

 

None of this means you should run out and invest your life savings in books because the market someday must recognize this imbalance and push up the prices of books. The market is not so rational. Even ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) cautions that books should be bought because you love them, not as an investment. However, what this does say to me is that if you wish to collect something that is of historic and cultural significance, you can get far more bang for your buck with books than with bowls.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Antiquarian Books<br>Including a series of views of Milan<br>September 27 to October 4</b></center>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Livius, Historia Romanae decades, Venice, Vindelinus de Spira, 1470, contemporary Morocco. €30,000 to €40,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Blaeu, Nieuw Stedeboeck van Italien (Piemont), The Hague, 1724-1725, 8 volumes, marbled calf gilt. €70,000 to €90,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Baysio, Rosarium decretorum, Venice, 1481, later vellum. €10,000 to €15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> [Niccolò da Poggibonsi], Viaggio da Venetia al santo Sepulchro, Venice, 1529, later half calf. €2,000 to €3,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Hieronymus, Epistole [Italian], Ferrara, 1497, blue crushed morocco with the Rocco di Torrepadula arms. €12,000 to €15,000.
  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Printed & Manuscript Americana<br>September 29, 2022</b>
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Extensive archive of papers of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> George Catlin, <i>North American Indian Portfolio,</i> 1844. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures, Carefully Translated…after the Best Jewish Authorities, Philadelphia, 1853-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Printed & Manuscript Americana<br>September 29, 2022</b>
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Wedding book of Eleanor Roosevelt’s bodyguard, Earl Miller, signed by the Roosevelts, 1932. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Textile titled <i>The Resignation of Pres’t Washington,</i> Scotland, circa 1800. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Gideon Welles, Pass for President Lincoln’s White House funeral, 1865. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Confirmation of arms and nobility in favor of the Diez y Mora family, Madrid, 1710. $2,500 to $3,500.
  • <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> JOYCE, James. <i>Ulysses.</i> London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1937. PRESENTATION COPY OF THE FIRST ENGLISH EDITION PRINTED IN ENGLAND. $50,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [SHACKLETON, Ernest]. –– BROWNING, Robert. <i>Poetical Works of…</i> London: Smith and Elder, 1906. PRESENTED TO SHACKLETON AND THE OFFICERS OF THE NIMROD BY A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York: George R. Lockwood, [1870]. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> ARISTOTLE. Opera, in Greek, parts one and two only: Organon and Natural Philosophy I. Edited by Aldus and others. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1 November 1495–February 1498. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> COOK, James, Capt. [Collected Voyages]. First and Second Voyages: London: W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, 1773, 1777; Third Voyage: London: H. Hughes for G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1785. $14,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> CLEMENS, Samuel Langhorne (“Mark Twain”). <i>The Writings of…</i> Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1899–1900. $12,000 to $16,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. SHAKESPEARE, William. <i>The Poems of…</i> Edited by Frederick S. Ellis. Hammersmith: William Morris for the Kelmscott Press, 1893. $12,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> LONDON, Jack. <i>The Call of the Wild.</i> New York: The Macmillan Company, 1905. PRESENTATION COPY INSCRIBED BY LONDON. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> CROWLEY, Aleister (1875–1947). <i>The Winged Beetle.</i> London: privately printed, 1910. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> WILDE, Oscar (“C.3.3.”). <i>The Ballad of Reading Gaol.</i> London: Leonard Smithers, January 1898. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> DRYDEN, John. <i>Fables Ancient and Modern; translated into verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with original poems.</i> London: John Tonson, 1700. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [MAP]. LINSCHOTEN, Jan Huygen van. <i>Delineatio Orarum Maritimarum…</i> London: John Wolfe, 1598. $3,000 to $4,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions