Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2005 Issue

What we can learn about book collecting from Joel Munsell

Albany, New York where Joel Munsell made his reputation


Of the 148 separate published works 84 show only a single copy and the balance, 64 titles, multiple copies of which 17 have 5 or more examples available. John William Wallace's 1863 "An Address delivered at the Celebration by the New York Historical Society," is today's most common item with 12 copies available. At the same time we need to remember that 95% of the Munsell items show no copies at all. By adding up the print runs of all ABE items for which information is provided in Munselliana and then dividing by the number of such titles [76] I find the average print run is 1,079. Next I multiple this by the 3,044 items that I believe Munsell printed and we confirm he was no friend of trees because he printed 3,132,275 +/- copies over his career. And how many of them were on ABE recently? The answer: three hundred and forty-two including those with multiple copies available. This is 1 of every 9,159 copies he printed. Wow! What does this mean?

How can some items be present in 5 or more copies and 95% not be present at all? I have no absolute answers, just opinions.

My first impression is that, while books have found a home on the net, ephemera occupies a less certain position. Sellers decide what to post. They create an entry order based both on their own experience and what is implied by others in their listings on the net. Munsell may not be making the cut. Much of his production is thin. Most of what he printed was bound in paper, not boards and was slim as Betty Davis at the beginning of her career. To the dealer wondering "what can I charge and who will buy it?" I suspect the answer is often "Not much and I don't know." These questions are probably always pushing Munsell pamphlets and the like to the back of the line.

The second issue is that many sellers look to what other sellers have to say to get the descriptive language for their listings. Ninety-five percent of this material isn't listed. It doesn't look particularly important and no one else is offering a copy. How can you describe an item you can not place in context?

Dealers dominate the listings. Both what they put up and don't put up defines everyone's understanding of what is collectible and available. For Munsell material to be broadly visible implies that other similarly rare and comparably collectible material would also be visible on the net. But unless such material encourages new collectors to collect it could potentially divide the same pie into smaller slices. There are a large number of potential listings but they can be potentially dilutive. Some dealer groups may see this as counter to their interests.

My guess is that this material is around but simply not recognized. How much of this material will come out over the next five years? Mike Stillman and I disagree about this. Mike believes that about 20% will appear at least once while my guess is at least 50%. I believe the material sits just over the horizon and, with education and time, it will emerge. How many people want it is another question.

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.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions