Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2009 Issue

Where Goes the Collectible Book?

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

  • 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
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions