Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2010 Issue

Where "Coverless" and "Foxed" are Positive Selling Features

Coverless book bundles, as offered by Restoration Hardware.


By Michael Stillman

When is a book more desirable after its covers have been torn from the pages? When are terms such as "foxed" and "faded" a positive selling feature? Welcome to the new world of books as art. Wait long enough and just about anything can get turned upside down.

Books have been collected as objects of art at least as far back as Jean Grolier, who put together his library almost five centuries ago. In those days books did not come with covers. That was left to the owner, and Grolier responded by binding his in fine leather, with ornaments, gilding and the like. For Grolier it was more than just an attempt to make his house look nice. It was a reflection of how he valued books and the knowledge contained within.

In the 19th century, the concept of fine press books began to take root. Printers such as the legendary Kelmscott began to produce decorative books, works of art straight off the press. The fine presses would generally pick classic titles, but their editions, usually printed in short runs, were really meant more to be appreciated as physical objects, such as paintings, than to be read. If you wanted to read the book, you probably bought a standard edition so you wouldn't deface the fine copy. The wealthier collectors of books as art purchased titles from fine presses such as Kelmscott or Grabhorn, those without much money might opt for a collectible edition from the Franklin Mint. Usually such collectors had an appreciation for the author's writing, or at least believed they ought to, even if they never actually read the work. Still, their intention was to place something of beauty and erudition on their shelves.

In the past decade we have seen the development of books as art taken to another level, one where the text became totally irrelevant. This was the "books by the foot" phenomenon. These are books that are purchased by size, a foot of books, a yard of books, whatever. You don't even know what titles you will receive. The only promise is that the covers will look nice and you won't get two copies of the same book. There is no pretense of the buyer having any interest in the content. Any thought of interest in the content clearly disappears when the buyer does not know or even care what books he is buying, though stacking such books on your shelf may imply an attempt to convince others of an interest in their content.

Now this concept has been taken a step further. Restoration Hardware, a highly respected name in the field of fixtures and such for older homes, is offering "antique coverless book bundles." These are bundles of books with their covers missing ("liberated from their covers"), tied together with string. It is what you would do to bring them to a recycling center. They are what the trade would refer to as "reading copies" (or some dealers as "...otherwise very good"). Noting that these bundles are "rich with texture and intrigue," Restoration Hardware explains, "Liberated from their covers, stitched and bound with jute twine, the foxed and faded pages of old books become objêts d'art." This is the first time I've seen "foxed" used as a compliment. "Foxy," yes, but not "foxed." Nevertheless, that little roof symbol over the "e" in "objêts d'art" seals the deal that this is something of high class.

Maybe I shouldn't be put off by these bundles. In these days of electronic readers, perhaps we should be thankful for any use someone finds for printed texts. And, maybe this isn't all that different from what Grolier, or Kelmscott or Grabhorn did. It is just taken to a different level. We traveled down the road from pre-washed to pre-faded jeans, and finally, to "new" pairs that already had holes in them. These books are sort of like the jeans that come with holes already there. Bad is good. One word that does not jump out in my mind to describe either these bundles or holy jeans is "authentic." The traditionalist in me says that old books missing their covers should get that way from use, not because some big cutting machine sliced off their covers. Still, with millions of old books out there that circumstances have now made virtually worthless, maybe it is good that they now have one more chance to find their way into people's homes. Frankly, my book collection just got a lot more valuable.

If you would like to purchase some coverless books for your shelves, they are available for $29 per bundle. Click here to order yours.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900

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