Pages of History: Fine Books & Collections Magazine Says Collectors Get More Than Their Money's Worth
"Fine Books 50" article reveals collectors spent $65 million on 296 rare books and manuscripts. Compared to the costs of other art, that's a steal, says editor Scott Brown.
The slightly musty aroma of old leather. The delicate feel of parchment. The awestruck silence that falls when you first hold a musical manuscript created by Mozart. It's impossible to describe the visceral sensations experienced by rare book collectors. But "Fine Books 50"--an article written by Greg Sanders for the March/April 2005 edition of Fine Books & Collections magazine that lists the top-selling rare books and manuscripts of 2004--comes close. For the new reader, it also serves as an introduction to a world in which people of relatively modest means cann own real treasures.
"It's true that people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on rare books," says Scott Brown, the magazine's editor. "Yes, it's a lot of money, but it's far less than what is spent on other kinds of art. The biggest story of the 2004 auction season was Sotheby's sale of Picasso's painting Boy with a Pipe for $104 million. Well, on our website we list 296 books that sold for more than $100,000 last year. It is sobering to think that the buyer of that painting could have instead bought all 296 book items we describe . . . and still had $40 million to spare."
The aforementioned article reports that topping last year's auction house sales was the Macclesfield Psalter, an English illuminated manuscript from the 14th century, at $3.1 million. Coming in second at $1,576,000 was William "Bill" Wilson's hand-corrected manuscript of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Wilson was the co-founder of that organization.
Total sales from this year's ranking were some $65 million. The list represents a comprehensive undertaking by the magazine to compile public records of auction house sales. Some of the notable sales were:
· The Texas Declaration of Independence, $764,000 · Shakespeare's Third Folio, $623,500 · Page proofs of The Scarlet Letter hand-corrected by Hawthorne, $545,100 · Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (inscribed to his wife's obstetrician), $366,400 · A three-page erotic letter from James Joyce to his wife, $445,480
This year's list is a reflection of what society currently finds important, says Brown: "Collectors place a premium on one-of-a-kind items and seek objects relevant to their lives."
It may come as no surprise, then, that a number of items on the list have some connection to the state of Texas. Key books in science were also popular.
Twentieth century authors with household names garnered remarkably high prices. Books by Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald sold for more than a 12th century manuscript by the Venerable Bede, which fetched a "mere" $123,000.
Hemingway placed more items on the top 50 list than any other author with four, including three books and a cache of letters. Declarations of Independence were big in 2004 as well, occupying four of the top 50 spots. Two different editions of the U.S. Declaration finished at #27 and #46. The Texas Declaration was #6, and the Irish Declaration, published in 1916, was #42.
Clearly, while the interest in rare books is hardly "mainstream," it is healthy enough. Brown says his magazine has some 4,000 subscribers and is growing steadily. And he hopes that more and more people will come to realize the beauty of collecting such works. Consider the following excerpt from "Fine Books 50":
As Leah Dilworth, chair of the English department at Long Island University in Brooklyn and author of Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, suggests, we collect because it helps us to establish a framework of meaning in our lives, and the objects we collect, in turn, become imbued with an aura of significance, much like a saint's relic. We also collect because we're mortal-and our collections live on after us.
To put it in the words of Nicholas Basbanes, as he writes in A Gentle Madness, "The closer people get to the source, the closer they feel to the wonders of creativity . . . To see and handle a first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species or Newton's Principia Mathematica is to touch ideas that changed the way people live."