Never Been a Better Time
A rare, possibly important map of the Hudson River Valley in the late 1820s
The impulse is strong, but the well-worn paths to book collecting, thinned by increasing rarity and higher prices, have effectively closed off the building of significant book collections for the 99% who love books but lack the unlimited resources needed to pursue the best material. For them other ways to build interesting collections are required and the evolving market is providing opportunities.
In its time the great material that circulated in the 19th century was broadly accessible and often unappreciated. Sellers of used and old books in the 1830s routinely handled rare and important material and passed it along for a few cents. Bibliographies, the databases of that era, were evolving but few had any sense of what would become important over the next two generations. The great aggregators of the era were collectors and what brought the material to prominence were their later sales at auction, often to the rising generation of rare book dealers. In time this material was sold to the greatest collectors of the later 19th century and often later gifted to libraries or sent back into the rooms. By the early 20th century much of the best European material was identified and had began to disappear from the market. Sabin would begin in the 1860s and others later complete in the 1920s his masterwork on American bibliography documenting more than 100,000 titles and many later editions.
In the ensuing ninety years scholars and dealers further documented collectible American books with the enthusiasm once reserved for important European works. In doing this they extended the field into pamphlets and broadsides stopping only where the material was difficult to date and contextualize or was deemed unimportant. In this way the genre of western Americana became an understandable field and potentially accessible. Collectors such as Thomas Streeter then spent decades scouring the market for examples of the rare and unknown. As it was with books in the early 19th century it was collectors who acquired and accumulated a generation or two ahead of emerging recognition that the field was highly important. A few collectors always see these opportunities first.
Never Been a Better Time
Early watercolors, random images of the Hudson Valley
Today collectors confront a new generation of opportunities. The collecting of ephemera, an under-examined and little understood extension of books and the works on paper category, is in its infancy, you could say in it’s own 1830s period. The databases to track and value this material comprehensively will be built ex-post facto because so little is known about the material up front. This means that for the current generation, if one develops expert knowledge, one can enjoy an absolute advantage for perhaps as much as a generation and in that time develop a superb, low cost collection. Personal knowledge will be essential because the volume of this material will eventually dwarf books, probably in time by more than a hundred, possibly even a thousand times.
Ephemera, as appealing as it is, it not going to be the exclusive beneficiary of digitization and the building of databases to record its history. Simultaneously, every distinct collecting category is being subsumed into a single unified search. This means that books, ephemera, manuscripts, maps, paintings, objects, art other than paintings such as photography as well as an amorphous other [categories yet to be named] are already merging into unified searches that potentially transform collecting from its current category basis into one based on subject. Such collecting is potentially of enormous personal significance as it permits collectors to collect both specifically and invariably narrowly because even narrow fields will see constant opportunities for purchase. Such collections will be stunningly unique. Whether they are eventually embraced by future generations will be known only in the years ahead but they aren’t going to be terribly expensive to build. Neither have the great collectors ever been guaranteed financial success. Such collectors did achieve something greater though, enduring recognition for their prescience.
What is certain today is that opportunities to collect are absolutely unique and if history is any guide the best collections will be built early.
I know this first hand as I have been acquiring online material related to the Hudson Valley in the State of New York for most of the past ten years. I had no theory or expectations and simply tried various methods for discovery and employed them on most of the available online sites. As software was needed we created it for AE members and I employed it myself. A decade in I can say that the unexpected comes up every day and that much of it is ephemera, material that is unpredictable and endlessly fascinating. At this point I have about 2,700 items of which about a fifth are books, both numbers that ten years ago I would have thought impossible.
Never Been a Better Time
Pamphlets, money, photographs and maps - 8 random ephemera in 2,700 pieces in my collection
What it turns into I have no idea but I am grateful for having pieced together the collecting opportunity via dealer recommendations and their catalogues, at auction, on listing sites and on eBay. If I live long enough this collection will soar beyond 5,000 items. It’s a remarkable inexpensive opportunity and only in its infancy.
My experience suggests that the world of collectibles has undergone a shifting of structure, the old world of collecting within a category becoming more and more a collector/subject centric electronic approach that simultaneously embraces many, and always more, categories of material. As a kid I never dreamed this was possible and now, in my sixties, I experience it every day.
At the recent book fairs in San Francisco and Pasadena I saw first hand evidence that the new collecting is alive and prospering. Cheek by jowl you could find ephemera for the new collector and sophisticated rare books for the connoisseur. What’s clear is that price need not be a barrier to building an interesting collection.
For this article in addition to the two illustrations of traditional and new collecting we have also prepared a more detailed breakdown by market component. Its percentages are simply guesses and the basic price levels, for collectible material, my assumptions but I find it interesting. I intend, when time permits, to construct a model of ten years ago and another of ten years out. I think we may able to see the future.
Were I ten again and sitting with Bill Heidgerd, the historian and book dealer who opened my eyes to the possibilities of collecting, I have no doubt he would tell me to prepare for a revolution in collecting for it is surely coming.