Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2009 Issue

Where Goes the Collectible Book?

Christiecurtisindians

Edward Curtis' North American Indian did not sell until after the auction.


By Michael Stillman

A recent unsold auction lot is something of a microcosm of various challenges facing the book trade today. It was a single item, though not an ordinary book. It was a set of Edward Curtis' The North American Indian, consisting of 20 volumes of photographs and text captured by Curtis in the early 20th century. J. Pierpont Morgan bankrolled the project; Theodore Roosevelt supplied the introduction. After years of preparation, the first volume appeared in 1907. The last did not make it to print until 1930, long after Morgan and Roosevelt died. It is a wonderful set.

Despite the great support and investment, Curtis was only able to obtain 222 subscribers, and but 272 sets were produced. One of those subscribers was Lammot Du Pont II, of the giant chemical company that bears his name. He gave his set to the Wilmington Institute Library. Last spring, the library decided to put this work and 14 N.C. Wyeth paintings produced for a 1920 edition of Robinson Crusoe up for sale at Christie's auction. The Wyeth paintings were purchased directly from the artist by the library in 1922 to hang on the walls of their reading rooms. The Curtis auction was held on October 8, while the Wyeth items will be sold on December 2. According to an earlier news release from Christie's, the proceeds were to be used to "support the Library’s physical plant and endowment."

Christie's put an estimate range of $700,000 to $900,000 on the Curtis set. When bids were received, the highest offered was $600,000. The bidding was closed with the books unsold. However, an offer was accepted immediately after the sale for $775,000. While that may sound higher than the minimum estimate, it would include commissions. The Wilmington Library evidently received somewhat less than the minimum estimate. A spokesperson for the library expressed some disappointment, at least at the initial results, but relayed Christie's confidence that the Wyeths would do well, describing the artwork as belonging to a completely different market. Christie's earlier estimated in excess of $3.8 million for the Wyeth paintings, possibly $5 million.

This sale raises a number of issues of great concern to the book world today, including some very tender subjects. The issue of libraries deaccessioning important works is particularly controversial. The circumstances here make it even tougher, the Curtis having been gifted to the library by a collector with strong Delaware ties, and the funds being used not to expand the collection but to repair the physical plant. We will not go into this issue further because it is discussed at length in the article More Than Meets the Eye in this month's issue of AE Monthly.

The other major issue raised by this sale is the value and collectibility of books in these changing times. The results for the Curtis were mildly disappointing, yet the sellers remain unconcerned as to how the Wyeth paintings will do. Art remains strong, even as books struggle. At the same sale, a 1969 print of a 1955 photograph by Robert Frank, Fish Kill, New York, sold for $170,500, more than doubling the midpoint of its estimate range of $75,000. I grew up near Fishkill, and it's a nice place, but... That's somewhat facetious, as the photograph is of a motorcycle rider, not Fishkill, though presumably it was taken in Fishkill, but the point is that art is trumping text these days by a wide margin. The Curtis will always do fine as it is a truly important book, and it is filled with photographs that are themselves every bit the artistic equal of Frank's photograph (in my opinion, but please don't tear them out of the book to hang on a wall). Still, the relative weakness of a book, even one that is filled with artistic photographs, compared to one photograph easily mounted on a wall, is notable. Books that are less artistic, comprised primarily or entirely of text, will face an even more challenging environment.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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.
  • <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.

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