Rare Book Sale Monitor

The April 2012 article titled “Adam Smith’s Classic of Modern Economic Thought,” articulated the difficulty in tracking price changes in rare books that exhibit limited transactional activity. The Rare Book Sale Monitor, which tracks monthly sales from multiple channels and compares them to historic quarterly pricing in order to report on significant shifts in pricing broken down by genre and selected authors, is particularly receptive to the very scarce, very limited rare book trading activity. By definition, a rare book does not frequently change hands and in a marketplace of limited activity, price change trends are sometimes difficult to interpret without human intervention or well-developed analytical systems.

During the past few months, copies of Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” appeared in auctions. First, last May in London at a Christie’s auction, the 2 volume set of the first edition published by Strahan and T. Cadell in 1776, sold for £182,500 ($307,330) including buyer’s premium. This particular copy was presented by Smith to Henry Herbert (later Lord Porchester), member of the British Parliament, Privy Councillor and Master of the Horse. (For details on how the RBSM processes presentation copies and provenance, please read our previous postings titled:  1)Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter 2013, 2) Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 1st Quarter 2014 – Factor of Provenance.)

Following the Christie’s sale, last June, Sotheby’s offered in their New York auction a first edition that was safely estimated to have a value of $70,000 to $100,000. The auctioneer did not entertain below starting bid offers, and the book remained unsold.

Bidding at an auction can become sensational given some favorable ingredients such as wide appeal, participant rivalry, inborn gambling spirit and the teasing uncertainty which tends to keep bidding alive. Such an atmosphere, along with the desire of at least two buyers to win, can turn an auction into a lively event pushing sales beyond unprecedented levels. However, these days the insistent urgency of the final words, “Going once-going twice-going third and last call!” are usually the same whether you are bidding in London or at an auction in New York. The difference between selling above the high estimate and not selling at all is definitely controlled by the appeal generated by the merchandise being offered for sale.

It is pretty obvious that the presentation copy sold at Christie’s is more desirable due to the importance of the dedication. Presentation copies are indeed far scarcer and without a doubt the feature that in this case had pushed bidding above the £100,000 high estimate.  Besides lacking the inscription, the lack of interest at $70,000 exhibited at Sotheby’s originated by some other factor. Both offerings are first editions and both books received restoration during their long lifespan, one with a contemporary mottled calf, the other with a later half-calf.  However, the most likely factor that discouraged bidders in New York seems to have been inherent in the composition of the set which did not include the half-titles (the complete set includes the half-title in Volume II, no half-title called for in Volume I).

Despite such complexities in the interpretation of the auction results, the RBSM, without human intervention, derived the correct outcome – credited the genre of “Business and Economics” as a result of the relative price increase after accounting for the effect of the dedication, generated  by the sale in London. The Sotheby’s event had no effect on any of the RBSM comparisons since no sale was recorded.  For the quarter, an uptick of interest in “Business and Economics” registered through additional sales that included a fourth edition of the “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” traded through Abebooks in June for £4000.

RBSM - Genre Breakdown - 2014 Q2

RBSM - Author Breakdown





al-Tasrif by Al-Zahrawi

During the Golden Age of Islamic science, (750 to 1258 AD) European medical practice was influenced by the important contributions of Muslims such as Al-Razi “Rhazes” (d. 925), Abul Quasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi  “Albucasis” (940 – 1013), Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Al-Zahrawi considered to be the father of modern surgery, diagnosed and treated many diseases especially those for women. He wrote a significant, multifaceted treatise, Kitab al-Tasrif liman ‘ajiza ‘an al-ta’lif (al-Tasrif), universally acknowledged within the medical community as the first illustrated textbook of surgery.

Existing al-Tasrif manuscripts reveal that the work which took more than 50 years of clinical research and practice, running into 40 manuscripts,  must have been completed around A.H. 400 (in Islamic years which is equivalent to 1009/1010 in Julian). It contains more than 200 illustrations and drawings of clinical and surgical instruments and devices, most of which were designed by Al-Zahrawi and some of them are still used today.

Al-Tasrif early translations were printed in Hebrew, Turkish, and Latin, with some variations and incomplete collations. Gerard of Cremona at Toledo translated the Latin variation printed in Venice in 1497 with the name Liber al-Sahrawide Chirugia. This translation by the most important language scholar at the Toledo school contains early miniature drawings of Al-Zahrawi’s instructional writing and training on midwifery with scenes drawn in the twelfth century, Codex Series Nova 2641.

Johnnes Channing brought out an Arabic-Latin edition (Oxford 1778) that was based on two of Al-Zahrawi’s manuscripts. These two Bodleian manuscripts are among the seven manuscripts used by Dr. G. L. Lewis in his critical edition:  Albucasis: On surgery and instruments published by Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine; London: 1973. A more comprehensive account that includes 40 of the manuscripts (includes the seven used by Lewis), was jointly published by Dr. Spink and Dr. G. Sonnedecker in the book A pharmaceutical view of Abulcasis al-Zahrawi in Moorish Spain (Leiden, 1963).

Another edition containing stylized figures is the lithographed Arabic edition of treatise XXX (Lucknow 1908). This particular edition was among the textbooks on surgery used by students of Tibb Unani School established by physician Maulaui Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Muhammad Isma’il of Lucknow, owner of one of al-Zahrawi’s manuscripts. Plates can also be seen in Dr. Salah al-Din al-Munajjid’s Le manuscript arabe jusqu’au x siècle de l’H, Cairo: 1960, as well as in the French translation, La Chirurgie d’Albucasis, by Lucien Leclerc; Paris: 1961.

The complete offering for collectors of medical books interested in aspects of al-Zahrawi’s enduring legacy in medicine and surgery are listed below:

Albucasis complete offering



America’s Oldest Continuously Running Rare Book Shop

June 13, 2014
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Amongst the lively city of Boston, Massachusetts, a rare book lover’s gem is unearthed. Nestled between grandiose skyscrapers and the inevitable routine city bustle, the oldest continuously running rare book shop is found: Brattle Book Shop. From the delightfully carved wooden sign bearing the shop’s name, to the exquisite front window display, all that encompasses […]

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Book Restoration: Good or Bad?

May 30, 2014
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Sotheby’s sold Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, at an auction last month for $377,000 including buyer premium. The lot was traded at the high end of the estimated value, signifying the fact that rare book investors and collectors will pay premium prices to acquire top quality books.  This particular […]

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Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

May 23, 2014
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Among some of the most important poems in the English language lies Ode to a Nightingale. The poem, written by John Keats in 1819, is probably the most famous of his Great Odes, which also include Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, Fancy,  and  To Autumn.  The collection is published in the third […]

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iApparatus in Rare Books

May 16, 2014
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On April 3rd of 1973, Martin Cooper, the leader of Motorola’s cell phone team, broke History. In a fashion reminiscent of Alexander Graham Bell 100 years prior, Cooper called Joel Engel, the research head of rival AT&T’s Bell Labs to say – “Joel, I’m calling you from a real cellular phone.” Historic breakthrough introductions such […]

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The Market for Early Printings of Venetian Woodblock Decorated Books

May 9, 2014
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Not long after Johannes Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical printing system in Europe around 1450, the first woodcut book illustration was printed in 1461. Woodcuts can be easily printed together with movable type because both are relief-printed (a process by which protruding surface faces of the printing plate or block are inked; recessed […]

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Ver Sacrum – The Most Beautiful Art Journal Ever!

May 2, 2014
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One of the most beautiful art journals ever printed was Ver Sacrum, published in Vienna from 1898 to 1903. Ver Sacrum was a team effort led by Gustav Klimt, who was the first president of the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, the Viennese avant-garde movement, with offshoots in Paris, Brussels, and Munich. Born in Vienna in […]

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When condition affects more than value – Interpreting Beowulf

April 25, 2014
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The oldest surviving epic poem of Old English, the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, is also a great example of how a manuscript’s condition affected the impression it had on writers and scholars through the centuries. Beowulf, like most Old English poems, has no title in the unique manuscript in which it survives in […]

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Trojan horse of the Women of Suffrage

April 18, 2014
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In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, only men were permitted to vote. Such a narrow privilege reserved only for male citizens, rightfully prompted women to fight for the existence of women’s suffrage, or the right of women to vote and to stand for electoral office. However, the global change that the suffrage movement brought […]

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