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Obelisk Scarcity

by The bookworm on November 21, 2014

Obelisk Press publisherA mix of censorship and bad novel-writing can provide the right ingredients in bringing about scarcity in rare books. That is exactly what the 1930’s, semi-underground literature publisher Jack Kahane created through his production at Obelisk Press. This is not to say that Obelisk published strictly smutty books since well known writers such as Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell had their elevated literature published by Obelisk. But it does show that while attractive literature may ultimately become scarce due to increased demand, the lack in supply is what usually brings scarcity to the not so attractive or less important literature.

The supply of rare books is normally following slowly diminishing market availability and thus higher pricing. While supply is slowly drifting downwards, both censorship and lack of good novel-writing aspects put the damper on the number of copies published and sold at the early stages of the book’s life. A publisher is likely to have no additional printings published if the novel is not well received. Historically, authorities have also slowed the production and distribution, and have even confiscated and destroyed publications that were deemed harmful to citizens.

Censorship drove Jack Kahane to form the Obelisk Press in 1929 in an attempt to publish books in France, (in English), and bypass the strict censorship that was practiced in Britain at that time. Buyers of his books were primarily American G.I.s passing through Paris on their return home and British citizens who risked having the books confiscated at the border for reasons of “sexual corruption.”

Bright Pink Youth by Cecil BarrSupplementing Obelisk’s offering, Kahane acted as a writer under the pseudonym of Cecil Barr. His books Bright Pink Youth (1934); Lady, take Heed (1937); Daffodil (1931); and Amour: French for Love (1932), considered too risqué to be published outside of Paris, were well received. Kahane died within days of the outbreak of World War II, having just finished his final book, Memoirs of a Booklegger (1939). Today, first editions of his books are hard to find, with some trading close to $1000.

Mixing serious work with smut, Obelisk’s list includes Henry Miller’s (1934) novel, Tropic of Cancer, that contains explicit sexual passages that prevented it from getting it published anywhere besides France; Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1930), Anaïs Nin’s Winter of Artifice (1939), Cyril Connolly’s first book and only novel, The Rock Pool (1936), James Joyce’s Haveth Childers Everywhere and Pomes Penyeach (1932), Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves (1934) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Black Book (1938).

Tropic of Cancer by Henry MillerObelisk published five more of Henry Miller’s books which blended his expressive real-life memoirs and fictional chronicles. His most characteristic works of this kind are Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936),and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). First printings in good condition are trading for a few thousand dollars.

Other novels, such as the Uncharted Seas, which was not significant enough to be referenced in Kahane’s Memoirs of a Booklegger, is a good example of the effect censorship and bad novel-writing have on scarcity. The book got published in 1937 without good authorship, using sexual corruption in an attempt to attract sales, during a year that was terrible for the Obelisk Press business. Bessie Cotter (1936) written by Wallace Smith, was described by Kahane as ‘the best story of a prostitute ever written in English. It was originally published by Heinemann, London, who was promptly taken to court and found guilty of publishing obscenity and fined 100 guineas. Despite the lack of appealing stories or authors, these books are still trading for more than a few hundred dollars.

Usually published in printings that run 1000 copies or less on a limited budget, Obelisk books had much to be desired upon publication. Fragile volumes that easily got worn along the edges, rubbed, and creased, that were usually sold uncut, suffered through the original owner’s rough cutting. Thus, collectors find it extremely difficult to secure good quality copies of this once actively suppressed publisher. Factors that will keep Obelisk publisher’s pricing remain erected upwards for a long, long time.



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Valuable Encyclopedias

by Admin on November 7, 2014

Yongle Encyclopedia

Yongle Encyclopedia, 16th-century China

Stopping at a yard sale a few years back, I picked up a set of The Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition, produced during the year 1910.  Fascinated by the idea of owning a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge just prior to the First World War, when the publication was at a crossroads with its transition from being British to becoming American,  I bought the 29 volumes for $20.  As an extra bonus, it came with the Britannica Year-Book from 1913, published the year after the sinking of the Titanic. Soon after,  I realized that there was an additional cost beyond the $20, in the form of storage real estate. The four feet of book shelf space that it occupied until the day it got sold for a small profit, was a luxury I could not afford. Libraries and collectors of books of the genre of “Education/Reference” are probably the only owners of bulky sets of encyclopedias these days. Encyclopedic knowledge has moved to more accessible electronic media on the internet with older important editions such as the Britannica 11th edition  now in the public domain being accessible to modern scholars and other interested parties of cultural artifacts.

Interest in old encyclopedias re-surfaced last month when a long-lost volume of the Yongle Encyclopedia of 16th-century China, representing part of the world’s largest known general encyclopedia at its time, was found in California. The complete Ming dynasty-era book containing 10,095 volumes and totaling some 370 million hand-transcribed characters is believed to be scattered across various locations throughout the world. The volume owner, the California-based Huntington Library, received the gift in 1968 from the American daughter of Joseph Whiting, a Presbyterian missionary who once lived in Beijing. Falling victim to the limited shelf space availability at the library’s storage facility, the volume remained un-accounted for in the basement for 46 years.

Old encyclopedias are attracting collectors primarily for two reasons:  scarcity and information. As is the case with all rare books and other collectibles, the more scarce an edition is,  the more likely it is to have a bigger spread between supply and demand, and thus the higher the monetary value. Soon after it was announced by the 244-year-old publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica, that the 2010 edition consisting of 32 volumes and a total production of 12,000 was going to be the last, any remaining copies quickly sold out. It is, after all,  an historically important publication reaching its end-of-life landmark. Collectors are also attracted by the insight into the social values and views of the society during the time of publication. Often times they describe ways of life and life forms that no longer exist, such as the now-extinct, blood-thirsty, largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times, the thylacine.  Politically incorrect, older content is viewed today as racist or sexist. Britannica’s eleventh edition, for example, characterizes the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of the white race with mission to “control the negro” and restore order to the American South after the impact of the American Civil War.

The majority of encyclopedias fall into the category of “mass-produced,” taking up more shelf space than most collectors have to spare. Many multi-volume collections present storage and preservation challenges. An incomplete set or a set containing a damaged volume is a cause for a significant reduction in value.  The more modern the set,  the bigger  the penalty incurred. For example, Luigi Serafini’s original 2-volume set of Codex Seraphinianus that sells for more than $5,000,  currently has broken sets of either volume 1 or volume 2 offered for sale for less than$1,000 with no buyer interest. Old encyclopedias are less impacted by such fallbacks due to the atomic nature of the information they contain, but are nevertheless more vulnerable due to the size and the number of volumes. It is not difficult then to see how the Yongle volume could have been misplaced back in 1968 when it was still considered the world’s largest encyclopedia.  It only took Wikipedia six centuries to break that record and perfect the art of collective knowledge scattered across the world.


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