Rossum's Universal RobotsHow fortunate native English-speaking booksellers are to have English as their mother tongue! English is the lingua franca of global business. Not surprisingly, the official language of ILAB, (The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), is English. However, the organization maintains that this stature is shared equally with French; hence the old ILAB motto “Amor librorum nos unit,” translated “The love of books unites us.” British members volunteered a one letter adjustment to the term: “Amor librarum nos unit,” translated “The love of sterling pounds unites us!” A rather comical adjustment, since the European Monetary Union, and the Euro, or even the US dollar, are more appropriate currencies to unify ILAB.

Modern first editions in modern foreign languages are not in as high demand as some of their corresponding English text translations. Abebooks, the premier on-line marketplace for rare books with operations around the world and six international websites, in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, occasionally scores 20th century, foreign-language editions in its top sellers. In fact, a number of foreign language written novels, become more appealing to collectors once translated into English. Why is that? The world has a well-balanced distribution of important authors and volumes across boundaries and nationalities, of course!

It is more difficult to comprehend ideas and concepts if there are no words for them in one’s language. English, unlike Arabic or French, has no official language police to monitor the development of newly invented words added in the vocabulary. The problem is that the actions of the official language bodies tend to lag, as new scientific discoveries are made and new technologies and concepts developed, so that writers in these languages are seemingly put into linguistic straitjackets and time warps. A language that originally disallowed use of words not found in the Koran, does not offer the vernacular vocabulary or the repulsive language to express the “blast-furnace” images that made a novel such as Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, a masterpiece in modern literature.

A rare book is worth what a buyer is willing to pay to own it. Naturally, what a buyer is willing to spend on the first edition of a book depends on her wealth. Even though English is only the primary language for about 5 percent (approximately 350 million of the world’s people),  the top 20 wealthiest countries on a per capita income basis are almost all English-speaking or use some other Germanic language, with the exception of France, Japan, and Finland. Franz Kafka, a nonperson in Czechoslovakia during much of the Communist period, wrote in German (considered a ”world” language), and so his work was spared the fate of his Czech-speaking countrymen. Karel Capek, who wrote in Czech, had his work effectively banned during four decades of Communist rule. He received fame when his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which coined the word “Robot” (deriving it from the Czech “robota”, forced labor), was translated into English in 1923.

Another argument is that collectors of fine and rare books consider dust-jackets an indispensable part of the book. More specifically, collectors of first editions would scarcely consider purchasing a volume that had lost its dust-jacket as issued. In Europe during the last century, book covers were published with simple images and plain type, often jacketless, because literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US. Publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers, while cutting costs at the same time.  Black-and-white German editions or plain wraps in French editions were very common, while the UK and US publishers employed designers to create striking dust covers. The UK book market is more competitive; all the covers in shops have to shout: ‘Buy me!’ In the US, meanwhile, publishers tend to signpost literary fiction more than the UK, because of even stiffer competition.

Still, texts in ancient foreign languages remain in demand. Classics, which are often studied in the original Latin and Greek, with horrific complexities of grammar such as gender, verb-endings, adjectival agreement, subjectives, and so forth, are very scarce in original editions. After all, the most expensive book ever traded is a 72 page journal, The Codex Leicester, with the scientific writings of Leonardo Da Vinci, in Italian.



RBSM excluding auctionsWhen an auction generates astonishing excitement in view of both the quality and quantity of books being offered, the excitement is also reflected in the prices realized. Even if the prices are often unrealistic, for many buyers, the auction remains a remarkable event that is worth the extra expense. High emotions are exactly the ingredients that auction houses are hoping and aiming to arouse. Excessively high bidding, the result of auction fever, is fueled by emotions such as pride, anxiety, desire, determination, stubbornness, and even hatred.

When Henry M. Blackmer II, died in 1988, his family arranged with Sotheby’s one of the most fabulous auctions on the eastern Mediterranean. A collection of 2000 books, pertaining to Greece and the Levant, covering a period from 1475 to 1900.  The bibliography was published in a limited edition catalog of 300 copies entitled: Greece and the Levant. The Catalogue of the Henry Myron Blackmer Collection of Books and Manuscripts. At that time, it was selling for £150 ($225), a copy. It now sells for more than $3000. What made the auction even more impressive than its contents, was the type of bidders it attracted. Besides the usual collectors and dealers drawn to the sale, there were representatives from three countries: Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. Fueled by national pride, the event sold its lots for more than $8,000,000, which was well over its original estimates.

The Rare Book Sale Monitor (RBSM) does not include auction results in computations of its book sales trends. Exceptional price fluctuations caused by emotional factors are difficult to measure and attribute. The historic auction results of a most important item; the Audubon, John James’s The Birds of America; from Original Drawings London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838, provides a great example. While the auction house estimates reflect an expected, gradual increase in the price of the book over time, the actual sale results have been quite erratic. After the record breaking sale in London in 2010, the following two sales, for the exact same copy, jumped from 7.5 to 9.65 million dollars within a six year interval. A very nice appreciation indeed!

Birds of America at auctionIt does take a singular auction, however, to feed frenzy and skew price appreciation/depreciation measurement the wrong way. Invariably, the RBSM recorded the appreciation of its genre, author, and artist trends, strictly using on-line and book fair activity for the 2nd Quarter of 2018.

chart_Q2chart2_Q2RBSM - Artist Breakdown



The Seven Pillars of a Rare Book: The case of John William’s “Stoner”

July 1, 2018
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Factor #1: Scarcity in supply. The year was 1965; the war in Vietnam was escalating, the space race was in full swing, and the Rolling Stones were on a world tour. America’s counter-culture movements were embracing drug use, liberal sexuality and obscenity in their writings and works. It was during this year that a novelist […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – Modern Firsts

May 16, 2018
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  In 1977-78 Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., held 3 auction events with the titles Important Modern First Editions and Fine Modern First Editions.  They included the rare book collection of Jonathan Goodwin, one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century. The 865 lot sale was broken in Part One Sale, (March 29, 1977), Part […]

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Desperately Seeking Members of the Prestigious Collins Crime Club

April 5, 2018
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During the golden age of detective fiction, when classic murder mystery novels were at the peak of popularity, Sir Godfrey Collins, started the Collins Crime Club (1930–94), as an imprint of British book publishers William Collins & Sons.  Until then, the Scottish printing and publishing company found success as a printer of Bibles and other […]

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Provenance through Bookplates or Book Labels

February 27, 2018
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Bookplates or Book Labels1 are nearly as old as printed books themselves. Going as far back as 500 years ago, bookplates, tell us interesting stories that provenance marks in historical books about books and their owners.  The earliest known examples of printed bookplates are German, and date from the 15th century.  Hand-colored woodcuts, pasted into […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2017

January 31, 2018
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Historically, the 4th quarter of the year is undoubtedly the strongest in sales of rare books. 2017 was no exception. We have come to realize through the years, that there are some aspects of the rare book trade that have been unlikely to drastically change. Thank human nature for that! On average, the October-December period has treated book […]

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Apollinaire’s Poetry is Art

January 5, 2018
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November 2018, will mark the Centennial Anniversary of the end of the Great War. In April, 1918, French poet, writer, critic and theoretician of art, Guillaume Apollinaire, published his work subtitled “Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916” under the title Calligrammes. This collection of poems is very special and unique for a number of reasons: […]

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Toys for the collector

November 28, 2017
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More than 100 years before the invention of educational gaming software, there were “novel and game,” educational board games which came complete with game pieces and instruction booklets, and were often accompanied by the novels which provided the basis of such creations.  Educational resources that combine gaming and education into one can be very effective […]

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Introducing the Rare Book Sale Monitor – Artist Breakdown

October 27, 2017
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The Rare Book Sale Monitor has given collectors new ways to structure their search for new additions to their collections using market trend indicators. Our view is that genre and author strategies can complement one another, and, that additional breakdowns can improve visibility and help structure collections to produce the desired results. In the case […]

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