Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica  Last quarter’s coverage of the big rare book auctions, focused almost entirely on the new price record set by a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which has become the most expensive printed scientific book ever sold at auction after a winning bid of $3.7m (£3m), nearly two and a half times its highest estimate. In fact, the regular December 14 Christie’s event, “Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, including Americana”, recorded close to 10 million dollars in total sales from 331 lots; a new record for this event.

Exuberant sales such as the one for the copy of Principia Mathematica say nothing about the rare book market overall, or the broader market for the most common titles that make up the majority of sales. Record-breaking auction sales are meaningless to the Rare Book Sales Monitor (RBSM), which uses repeat sales data from a variety of sources including auctions, on-line marketplaces and book fairs to generate the reports. Repeat sales information exclude unique offerings that only sell once or the offerings that never find a buyer. In order to avoid nonsampling errors, (which can arise when a title being tracked is no longer trading within a year), it is replaced with another similar title of the same genre.

Within the results recorded towards the end of 2016, there was a wide disparity in performance. Titles that were extremely popular with collectors historically showed a significant drop in sale price or remained unsold, while others kept charging upwards. The differentiating attribute in most of these cases proved to be the factor of “condition”. A simple example to consider consists of two copies of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, that are identical in every way, except one of them has had some restoration to the dust jacket. If the book without restoration to its dust jacket sells for 20% more a few months after the copy with the restoration did, a normal indexing process could record a 20% jump in one of its composites.  Since collectors are more willing to pay the premium for the appeal of a copy that still has its original dust jacket condition intact, a statistical method called “hedonic regression” is applied to the computation, with the end result, in this case, having no price appreciation recorded. Hedonics is usually applied to titles that are sold with specified faults, such as damages or missing parts like dust jackets.

The RBSM begins by recording price changing trends in titles considered to be within very narrow homogeneous range. In other words, books having the same imprint and condition. Following that, consideration is given to special attributes, if any, such as signatures, inscriptions, associations, margin notes etc. The copy of the Hobbit, for example, that sold for a premium because it was signed by the author, made an impact on the author/genre RBSM index, because of the availability of comparables. Putting a price tag on “signature” is tricky, because it varies, as anything else, by author popularity and scarcity of work. Signature valuations are best left determined by the marketplace forces.

A less important consideration, but still a factor is the channel by which a particular title gets sold. Auctions in particular, are more vulnerable to wider sale price fluctuations or price variance. Bidding at an auction can become sensational given some participant rivalry, and may push sales beyond unprecedented levels. For this reason, the RBSM favors price changes recorded within similar channels or marketplaces. This heuristic practice is also in agreement with recent research studies at Stamford University, which imply that books in high demand which appear at auction more frequently, consist of works that sellers are willing to part with because they have increased in value. Such bias is minimized by comparing sales from the same channel.

The RBSM indexes are rough approximations, but they are still very useful. They are very good at providing a high level picture of the more general price trends for several genre and authors actively trading in the rare book marketplaces. In this respect, even though the media declared that a first edition of Principia Mathematica, set out Newton’s laws of motion in rare book trade motion, the RBSM recorded a significantly lower increase for the genre of science since the first quarter of 2016.


RBSM 2016 Q4 genre

Rare Book Sale Monitor Genre Breakdown

RBSM 2016 Q4 Author

Rare Book Sale Monitor Author Breakdown




Beinecke Library

I was born in Mainz, Germany. I lived for the first month of my life in a printing plant before being brought to a merchant. I can remember very little about that time, for as soon as I left the plant I was securely stored away in a bookcase outside of town.  I was very fortunate to escape the 1462 ruthless plundering of Mainz carried out by the troops of Adolph II. Many of my fellow “paperkind” were destroyed the day that the printing office, the place of my birth, was set on fire, taking all of my early childhood memories away from me.

While I was created with a chance to live forever, (whatever “forever” entails on this planet), it is quite possible that improper living conditions could bring premature end of life to a great number of we “paperkinds.”  For quite a few of us lucky ones, who manage to attain collectible status and avoid mishaps on the way, life can be long, long, long. Some of my siblings are accounted for and well-preserved, but perhaps there are still a few that have not been destroyed and are still intelligible, buried in the farthest corners of the world, and hidden amongst the innermost shadows of forgotten rooms, waiting for the day to be discovered.

As for myself, I am sitting pretty in the most elegant of rooms, under the most proper conditions created to house “paperkinds”. I am here with some other lucky, collectible, all-time “nuggets”, such as; The Bay Psalm Book which was bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt and somehow made its way to Yale. I was still far across the Atlantic, the day when locksmith Stephen Daye, set up shop in 1639, in Cambridge MA, to work on the production of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, psalter, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, prized as the oldest surviving object printed in what is now the United States.

Every work in this place, whether sacred or secular, was laboriously created as a unique glorification of the acquisition of knowledge. Take for example, John James Audubon’s, The Birds of America; or the Speculum humanae salvationis (pseudo-Bonavature, Meditations de passion Christi, England, early fifteen century), believed to be the first illuminated manuscript given to an American academic library; or the first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; or the multiple copies of rare James Joyce’s, Ulysses; or the papers of Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound and Lassie creator Eric Knight. They are all here.

Thanks to architect Gordon Bunshaft, our state of the art new digs at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is providing the ideal 65 °F and 45% humidity for we “paperkinds,” despite seasonal fluctuations, while also protecting us from bookworms. I am also informed that the plumbing, fire-suppression and security in this place, are designed to ensure our eternal lives, or at least as long as this planet keeps spinning.

Since I am not allowed to remain uncommunicative and inaccessible, and I do have to make myself available to the young knowledgeable scholars, I am snuggly housed in a nice Bunshaft-designed display case; an additional precaution offered to super stars such as me. Oh, before I forget, a little piece of information for any newcomers planning to join the establishment, you will have to spend three days in an on-site freezer at 30 degrees below zero Celsius to exterminate any pests you may be carrying and stabilize your mold. A brilliant idea, may I add. In fact I do not understand why some of our visitors are not forced to go through a similar process.

Just in case you are still wondering who I am, I am the Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42.


Gutenberg Bible at Beinecke





The Ingredients of the Rarest Christmas Book

December 15, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Ingredients of the Rarest Christmas Book

At a local book trade show not more than three months ago, I had the opportunity to meet up with a few old friends and exchange some provocative conversations relating to my favorite topic – books.  The antiquarian book dealer in this particular conversation was delighted to bring up some quite interesting points on the […]

Read the full article →

Tarantula by Bob Dylan

November 25, 2016
Thumbnail image for Tarantula by Bob Dylan

What do T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Pearl Buck, Elias Canetti, Gunter Grass, John Steinbeck, Harold Pinter, Ernest Hemingway and Bob Dylan have in common? They have all been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the world’s most prestigious and coveted award. The 2016 winner, Bob Dylan, […]

Read the full article →

Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2016

October 22, 2016
Thumbnail image for Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2016

In terms of total dollars, global auction sales of rare books in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2016 were slightly down from the same period in 2015; this year’s $87 million figure, for the period, represents a 6% decrease compared to last year. But a closer look at the top three markets – the […]

Read the full article →

The Rarest Milestone in the Science Fiction Genre

October 2, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Rarest Milestone in the Science Fiction Genre

Do Jules Verne’s works categorize as science fiction? The French author who has been called the “Father of Science Fiction”, along with authors such as H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Lucian of Samosata and Mary Shelley, often argued against classifying his novels as scientific. In fact, he has often been labeled a writer of genre […]

Read the full article →

From the Hinman Collator to Machine Intelligence

September 16, 2016
Thumbnail image for From the Hinman Collator to Machine Intelligence

Past Technology: Lights and Mirrors The students at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, receive, as part of a course in Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, a demonstration of the 450 pound Hinman Collator. The purpose of the machine, which was developed during the 1940s by Charlton Hinman, was to help detect typographical variations in the […]

Read the full article →

The Factor of Color in Early Centenary Printing

September 2, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Factor of Color in Early Centenary Printing

17th century German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher, published around 40 works, exploring a variety of topics, ranging from a universal language scheme, to pneumatic, hydraulic, catoptric and magnetic science. His books are lavishly illustrated, written in Latin, and were in wide circulation during the 17th century. Collectors historically have sought some of his most notable […]

Read the full article →

The Bible of the Revolution

August 19, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Bible of the Revolution

The Aitken Bible is one of the most celebrated American Bibles, considered to be the first complete English Bible printed in America. Before the War for Independence, British law gave a monopoly for printing the King James Version of the Bible to the Royal Printer; thus compelling the colonies to buy their Bibles from England. […]

Read the full article →

Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2nd Quarter, 2016

August 5, 2016
Thumbnail image for Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2nd Quarter, 2016

The 2nd quarter of 2016 felt the tremors caused by the UK affirmative Brexit vote. The subsequent drop in the value of the British currency delivered a rather controlled above normal interest in rare books offered in British pounds. Opportunistic buyers took advantage of the lower dollar or euro to sterling exchange rate, mostly through […]

Read the full article →