Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2009 Issue

Book Collecting in the Modern Era

A cautionary tale


By Bruce McKinney

Book collecting is a difficult undertaking that requires luck, determination and perseverance and then only occasionally achieves success sufficient to warrant enduring approbation, the payoff that many serious collectors hope for but most rarely achieve. England has its Westminster Abbey to remember its greatest writers and America its museums, institutions and societies to render similar service. In all provinces and jurisdictions authors have their advocates. If successful they may be widely read, their words translated, and their ideas discussed. If their statements and stories are pithy they may even enter the lexicon for a generation or two. Be writer, printer and statesman and your aphorisms may, as they have for Benjamin Franklin, echo down through the ages. But be only a book collector in pursuit of something more than material and you scale the sheer face of an Everest in bad weather. What immortality that is available is most reserved for those who link their collecting with generosity.

Collectors, in the skillful and canny pursuit of material, can achieve a faint immortality themselves through the dispersal of their book plated copies that, scattered to the wind, carry their names as footnotes in the fine print of books well described. For those who have once cared, and by luck or skill owned important copies, the owner's name may survive and perhaps be remembered long after the spirit and the bones have parted ways.

Less often, single owner collections are the subject of auction catalogues and in this way rise another rung toward immortality if only among that few that track ownership and specific copies across the generations. Yet other collectors give single volumes and whole collections to institutions and achieve a recognition that resonates with the IRS but for the institution fades with time unless the donor's name is carved in marble or granite. A few institutional collections bear collector names and even, once in a blue moon, the occasional library their names to future generations. The recognition, however, whatever the level, is always about what was collected rather than how it was collected. The collector at most could hope to join the stygian chorus whose judgments reflect approval and sometimes disapproval of the masters, the writers and sometimes publishers, their first editions, best editions, signed copies, and the perfect and unique ones they pursued through the decades of a collecting life. The judgment and discernment of the collector has rarely been the focus.

This is not to say that collecting cannot achieve importance. It can and I think in the current generation will. For the emerging generation the new calculus will be about how collections are formed and I think cost and value will become a thread in the calculation of achievement. The loss of price as reference over the past fifty years has permitted an upward spiral in price, if not value, that has been based more on the ability to pay than on rarity, condition or importance. In the years ahead great material will continue to obtain great prices while the lesser lights will, like Icarus, fall to earth. In the new calculus deeply focused collections will become the norm, their value and importance enduring. These are collections that will matter whether they are about subject, place, genre or gender. The emerging tools on the web are simply setting the standards ever higher. If the focus has been on high points it will shift to intensity.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Toronto Book Auctions
    ART-PHOTO-SIGNED-BOOKS-MILITARY(NON)FICTION
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] DAVID BURLIUK WITH ORIGINAL DRAWING and Signed twice. David Burliuk Rare ACA Gallery exhibition catalogue, undated. CA$400 – 800
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] KAWS: COMPANIONSHIP IN THE AGE OF LONELINESS. Text by Margaret Atwood. National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, 2019. $CA400 - 800
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] LAWRENCE WEINER: POSTERS. Nova Scotia College of Art, Canada,1987. CA$800 – 1,200
    Toronto Book Auctions
    ART-PHOTO-SIGNED-BOOKS-MILITARY(NON)FICTION
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: WILBUR SMITH: THE DARK OF THE SUN. Heinemann, UK, 1965. Signed First edition. CA$800 – 1,200
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: ROBERTSON DAVIES: LEAVEN OF MALICE. SIGNED Clark, Irwin, & Co., Canada. 1954. 1st edition. CA$400 – 600
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [THE NOTABLE TRAILS LIBRARY]. 8 VOLUMES SOLD TOGETHER. INCLUDING: THE TRIAL OF DR. X; ROE V. WADE; THE GALILEO AFFAIR; THE TRIAL OF BERNHARD GOETZ… CA$300 – 500
    Toronto Book Auctions
    ART-PHOTO-SIGNED-BOOKS-MILITARY(NON)FICTION
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [MILITARY FICTION]. 8 VOLUMES SOLD TOGETHER. INCLUDING: Canada's Royal Military College. REVIEW, THE STONE FRIGATE, A HISTORY OF THE RMC… CA$300 – 400
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [WW1] CANADIAN (C.S.E.F.) SIBERIA 1918-1919 PHOTO ALBUM. With approximately 303 original official war photographs, postcards, and personal photographs. CA$8,000 – 10,000.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: HANS BELLMER: THE DOLL. 1995, 1st Ed. CA$150 – 300.
    Toronto Book Auctions
    ART-PHOTO-SIGNED-BOOKS-MILITARY(NON)FICTION
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: FAN HO; HONG KONG YESTERDAY. ModernBooks edition, 2006. First edition. 4to. CA$300 – 600.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: TARYN SIMON: AN AMERICAN INDEX OF THE HIDDEN AND UNFAMILIAR. Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2012. Third edition. CA$600 – 1,000.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: BARBARA KRUGER PICTURE/READINGS. [Self-Published], 1978 First edition. CA$800 – 1,200.
  • 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
  • Gonnelli:
    Auction 50
    Books, Autographs & Manuscripts
    March 6th-7th 2024
    Gonnelli: Cramer, [Picasso, Chagall , Miró], Trente ans d'activité. Starting price 4800€
    Gonnelli: Futurism
    Gonnelli: Avienus, Opera. 1488. Starting price 1200€
    Gonnelli: Vimont, Relation de ce qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France, en l'année 1642. Starting price 5000€
    Gonnelli: Goedart, Metamorphosis et historia naturalis insectorum. 1662.
    Gonnelli: Il Petrarcha con la spositione di M. Giovanni Andrea Gesualdo.
    Gonnelli: Poblacion, De usu astrolabi compendium.

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