Worlds apart: books, maps, manuscripts and ephemera
Kenneth Rendell, now 80, a life-long collector-dealer in collectibles, has written an immensely interesting account of his life in our field. This book, his ninth, is being released October 3rd, 2023 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon and elsewhere.
When kids find their imaginations soaring about old books and paper, they inevitably daydream about discovering gems and subsequently share their prizes with luminaries, collectors and institutions. In the human imagination, possibilities live. Children have long been drawn into the magic of discovery and some lucky few grow up to spend their lives in the embrace of collecting wanderlust. Kenneth Rendell has lived that life.
While many are drawn, few have both the retentive memory and comparative logic necessary to play at the highest levels. Mr. Rendell has both as well as boundless self-confidence and an engaging style. Taken together, you have the makings of an exceptional dealer who becomes the scholar-expert. His story will quicken the hearts of those who hope to follow his path.
He tells his story.
He’s fundamentally a mathematician and early on applied his skills to estimate rarity of coins while relying on the established standards for quality. Understanding that coins were unevenly distributed and knowing the total number of specific versions minted, he tried to locate their repositories and found ways to look at them with the goal to buy the best examples. It sounds simple and straightforward, but few others tried that approach in the 1950s and in his teens he earned enough money to set himself up as a professional coin dealer.
Soon after, using his deep intelligence, he began to look for opportunities beyond coins, stamps and books that had known, or probable quantities printed or minted, he then began to look for collectibles whose values were scalable by importance of their content. For that he shifted to manuscript material.
To deal stamps, coins, and books there were three variables; number of copies printed, copies or examples known, their conditions, and special factors such as bookplates or inscriptions. For manuscript material there was a kaleidoscope of other variables, by who and to, its timing, priority and subject as well as its condition. For stamps, coins and books they have long had well-documented histories. They are checkers while manuscripts are chess.
As Mr. Rendell entered the manuscript field in the 1960s, other dealers, collectors, collecting institutions and counterfeiters were joining the fray too. Rising prices appealed to everyone.
His approach about manuscripts evolved into monetizing the significance of content after such documents had a long sleepy period in the market. He, and his research team, sought to contextualize documents and caught the wave of rising interest.
It seems odd today to think that content was ever not deeply plumbed because content seems to have long been the basis for current dealer and auction pricing, but it turns out – serious attention to content primarily dates from the 1960s. Age and names had been emphasized and continue to matter. But going forward, pricing would rocket as content and priority brought many new collectors into the field. Mr. Rendell’s fingerprints would be all over the trend. In his chapter 9: “Exploding Onto the Public Stage” [in the early 1980s] he shares how his firm and the field adjusted.
At the same time authenticity was becoming more important because prices were rising, and fakes were entering the market. Certainly, it has long been said some collectibles “are to die for.” In collectibles, when you are left holding one that’s unreal that’s when you experience the dying part.
To the field of manuscripts, once he brought a heightened sense of context, he was subsequently asked to apply science and logic to identify forgeries. And he did.
He would play important roles in five celebrated cases. Each of these cases are subjects of chapters.
The Hitler Diaries Hoax 1983. [Chapter 8]
In 1985 the Mormon forgeries that were the cause of a death. [Chapter 11]
The Jack the Ripper Diary Hoax 1992. [Chapter 13]
Is nothing sacred? The Elvis Presley Manuscripts forgeries 2000. [Chapter 17]
The Billion Dollar French Manuscript Scandal ending 2014. [Chapter 20]
While Mr. Rendell was living the lives of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe and Miss Marple he was also becoming the architect to some of the most famous library collections organized over the past 30 years. Talk about a dream job.
Collecting has long been great fun when prices are rising. There is the exhilaration of winning and ownership. And there is a degree of prestige. When collections reflect the builder’s studied connoisseurship, such collections become storied possessions. In that way, when the curtain inevitably falls, such storied collections will live on as his handiwork.
Whether such collections survive intact will be a matter of luck and circumstance. A few may survive 50 years and if they do they will be remembered as Mr. Rendell’s handiwork and will bring big bucks if they make it into the rooms.
For stories about those halcyon collections buy his book. Get a copy and read it twice. It will make you a better collector.
Look for it on Amazon. The search is: Safeguarding History by Kenneth W. Rendell.
Sometimes day dreams turn into paradise on paper.