Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2009 Issue

A Benefit for Collectors: Eternal Life

Tmd

The man dies. The books go on.


By Bruce McKinney

For those with a love of reading the value of a book is in its content. It's condition often hardly matters. In fact a well-worn copy passed down and around in some families is one way of conveying bond and perspective. For years I have kept a library of books I read against the day my son and daughter would ask for a good read or an angle on history or life. In that way I have been able to pass along to them some fifty or so books one or both later read. Someday they may speak of me to their children as someone who could be understood by the books I read and suggested. That a small piece of my perspective may endure for a generation or two is an appealing, if perhaps not an entirely realistic thought. Most of us would cheat death if we could but leaving some tell-tale evidence of existence is probably about the best we can hope for. The books I read and recommended are potentially part of their intellectual inheritance.

I believe book collectors hope to do a similar thing when they add their bookplates to material they value in the hope their intellectual DNA will, once and again, in future, land in the libraries of the like-minded and hence be carried on the shoulders of future collectors on into a world where they and I hope, and almost expect, reading will still matter.

For bonds between yesterday's, today's and collectors-yet-unborn to be forged however evidence of ownership needs to survive. The collector needs to add a bookplate or notations and their books need to run the gauntlet of multiple dealers' potential desire to suppress the information because it too easily identifies a copy purchased at auction on the cheap.

As a consequence, while headstones tend to last, bookplates too often disappear. Among the more than 125,000 items posted on the AED during the first six months of 2009, almost all of it collectible, a portion of it rare, just 2% contain references to bookplates. Just today, in the 7,781 September auction lots already posted on AE in upcoming auctions, just 298 contain 'bookplate' in their descriptions. Collectors, once they become serious, should make an effort to design, or have designed, a bookplate. Life will end, the collector's connection may endure and may even add value.

One reason that book collecting has suffered over the past half century is that ownership information has been suppressed. No one wants to take credit for this but it is clearly both dealers and consignors to auction who suppress this information because they wish to break the bonds that connect older [and lower priced] auction records with material returning to the market with much higher expectations. Where collectors do not see that collecting and collectors are respected their enthusiasm stands to be diminished.

Of course, the selection of a bookplate can negatively impact value. A quick Google search for 'bookplates' unearths quite a few of them. They are absolutely scary. But there is also the Bookplate Society which actually focuses on bookplates to the point it's likely some collectors have actually removed them from books. In other words, putting your bookplate into your important volumes assures only that you tried. If your books at auction go cheaply your bookplate will disappear to obscure the ignominy. If the plate is superb some bookplate collector is going to try to excise it. It's probably best to approach it as if you are racing carrier pigeons. Send out twenty and hope seven arrive.

Of course, if you succeed too well some enterprising forger will duplicate your [now assumed famous] bookplate thus raising questions in the centuries ahead as to how your bookplate shows up in material published after your death. If it happens, the chances are you won't know and, perchance if you do, you probably won't care.

If you are achieving eternal life based on something you read in a book while on earth please send a sign. Something discrete. You can reach me at the Americana Exchange.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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