AE Top 500 at Auction for 2008!
Lincoln's response to the "Little People's Petition."
By Michael Stillman
Another year has come to an end, which means it is time to look back at the AE Top 500 of book and ephemera sales at auction for 2008. This was a tough year. It certainly started well enough, a robust economy providing high-end book collectors with sufficient funds to feed their obsession. As late as July, $4 gas, painful for drivers, reflected just how booming the economy was. The year did not end this way. Next month we will have a chance to gather all of the sales figures for 2008 to present a more detailed look at the market for books. For now, the anecdotal evidence hints at a dose of reality.
Nothing was close to last year's top prize of $21.3 million for a Magna Carta, but that was an aberration even last year. What's more telling is #500. In 2007, the 500th most expensive item at auction sold for $72,000. This past year, #500 went for just $51,000. The midpoint number in the first half of 2008 was $61,000. The midpoint for the second half of the year was only $43,750. For those of you in the book trade who have found making sales difficult, or requiring unusually steep discounts, it is not your fault. Books are subject to the same market forces as gasoline, stocks, and real estate. This is a better time for buyers than sellers.
Now it's time to get to the Top 500. Near the end of this article, you will find a link to the complete list. There are many names that make multiple appearances on this list, and often make it year after year. You will find plenty of material from Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and Hugo. This was a very big year for material related to Andre Breton. Scientists get their due with Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo all quite popular. From government, Elizabeth I, Churchill, Washington and Lincoln are always in demand. Albrecht Durer illustrations are regulars to the Top 500, as are those of Audubon. This year, many original illustrations for Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh also brought in top dollar. Beethoven and Mozart may not have made the Billboard Top 500, but they made our charts. Several copies of the Book of Mormon prove it is extremely collectible if not rare. Economist Adam Smith had a better year than the economy.
At #486 was the copy of John Ledyard's Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage which made such a stir when it went from eBay to Christie's auction rooms in 81 days. $52,500. An archive of presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald took in $59,750, enough for #412. He was no Lincoln, but Abraham's ineffectual predecessor, James Buchanan, made it to 346 with a private letter claiming, "I console myself with the conviction that no act or omission of mine has produced the terrible calamity [Civil War]." $67,000. At 322 is a remarkable letter from French navigator La Perouse, written seven years before he disappeared off the coast of Australia, concerning a meeting he had with George Washington in 1781. He, like most others, was impressed. $71,874. Next, at #321, is an archive of over 200,000 photographs from films and of their stars from the massive inventory sale of the Collector's Book Store of Hollywood. $71,980.
AE Top 500 at Auction for 2008!
Along with presidents, presidential assassins Lee Harvey Oswald and Leon Czolgosz made the Top 500.
Some assassins rate higher than others. Number 166 is a manuscript by Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President McKinley. This is particularly noteworthy as it is the final two pages of his signed confession. $110,500. At 145 is Louis Daguerre's historic description of his amazing new process - photography - from 1839. $122,500. What could be more ironic than Marx and Engels' #138 Communist Manifesto going for $126,100 capitalist dollars?
It is doubtful even the Bible is printed as often as the telephone book anymore, but the very first one from 1878, was #93 at $173,500. The pirate Henry Morgan's account of his sacking Panama went for a chilling $259,700 worth of Spanish gold at #47. Now, this takes us to the Top 10 auction prices for 2008.
10. An early 15th century illuminated Wyckiffite New Testament. $655,838.
9. The Munro copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, with a few pages in facsimile. $870,464.
8. The only known signature from Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg at the time of his famed address. Part of an autograph album. $937,000.
7. The illuminated set of San Sisto Choir Books from the 15th century. $985,875.
6. An autographed manuscript describing surrealism by Andre Breton. $1,339,145.
5. The Courtney Compendium, a collection of 14th century historical accounts, including the travels of Marco Polo. $1,405,875.
4. De revolutionibus by Copernicus, which in 1543 for the first time placed the sun at the center of the universe. $2,210,500.
3. A complete set of John Gould's folio bird books (9 books in 40 volumes). $2,458,658.
AE Top 500 at Auction for 2008!
Despite their unquestioned artistic beauty, Hans Bellmer's dolls did not make the cut.
2. This was Andre Breton's year, with the second highest price going for his 1924 manuscript used to publish the Manifesto of Surrealism. $2,847,801.
1. Abraham Lincoln's signed response to the "Little People's Petition," wherein the President in 1864 responded to a letter from some schoolchildren requesting he free all of the slaves. Lincoln responds that while he does not have the power to do all they request, that God does, and that it now appears He wills it. $3,401,000.
You may find the complete AE Top 500 by clicking this link.
A Note on Making the Cut: What makes it into the Top 500 books and related ephemera list is not always as easy as looking at the price. A book of literature or history is easy to classify. How about a book of art? If it is clearly a "book" (whatever that may mean), that is one thing, but how about a portfolio of prints? What if the prints are bound together but without text? What if it is a single original illustration, but that image was used as an illustration in a book?
We have attempted to separate books from art, "art" being a separate field, and one where prices are in a totally different stratosphere. Mothers, teach your children to be artists, not writers. We have included original artwork for books, so you will find drawings created for Winnie-The-Pooh. Albrecht Durer engravings make the grade for his major role in early book illustration. However, Andy Warhol does not make the cut, which is just as well as there would be little room for anyone else if all of his prints that sold for big bucks were included. The same is true of Picasso's images which look like his press was out of register. Collections of photographs are let in where the interest is historic, while those that are more artistic, such as Irving Penn or even Ansel Adams, are not.
So, here is an example of what we left out that you might have included: Les Jeux de la Poupee (Doll Games), by Hans Bellmer. This 1949 "book" contains 15 hand-colored prints of Bellmer photographs. Bellmer made dolls which he then photographed. As the lot note explains, "Hans Bellmer is best known for his erotic photographs of life-size pre-pubescent female dolls." Bellmer wrote, "It was worth all my obsessive efforts when, amid the smell of glue and wet plaster, the essence of all that is impressive would take shape and become a real object to be possessed." The description continues, "The Doll's exaggerated pudenda and limbs, which could be disassembled and rearranged due to the ball-joints, speak to the intensity of his artistic endeavor and chilling fetishization of the female form. This Doll seamlessly integrates Bellmer's artistic exploration in a series of fifteen photographs that are childlike and brutal, sexual and intimate. Presented in book-form, these images acquire a peep-show quality..." Okay, this may be in "book-form," but wouldn't you agree it is really an object d'art, or perhaps de weird? By the way, for those who don't know the word "pudenda," it is defined as "vulvo," which is not a Swedish automobile but female sexual organs.
Bellmer's "book" sold for $96,000, which would have placed it at #207. In fact, if we included Bellmer, he would have had five items on the list, far more than Shakespeare or Twain, Washington or Lincoln (though nowhere in the neighborhood of Warhol or Lichtenstein). Would this really be a book list? This one was actually a bargain basement piece for Bellmer, for whom a single print of one of his "unsettling" doll photographs sold for $325,000 (it would have ranked #27). What is more "unsetting" than Bellmer's pedophilic doll photographs are the prices people pay for them! We have saved him for the Art 500, instead of the Book 500. Sorry, Hans.