AE Top 500 Auction Sales for 2012
Spiderman takes on the Hulk, and takes in $657,250 for his efforts. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.
It is time once again to look back at the Americana Exchange's annual listing of the Top 500 sales at auction in the books, works on paper, and related ephemera field for 2012. It was an unusually active year, but likely the new norm. The volume of sales at auction has been building steadily and there is no reason to believe the trend won't continue. For 2012, there were again 11 items in the million dollar category, but #1 was almost $10 million, nearly four times the highest priced item of 2011.
Perhaps most telling was #500. In 2011, that item sold for $52,170. In 2012, #500 sold for $71,700. That's an increase of 37%. What's going on here? Are prices rising that much? While the top end appears to be the strongest part of the market, prices aren't growing that rapidly. What we are seeing is more books coming to auction. As more books are offered at auction, naturally, more high-priced ones appear. Auctions are taking more of the market, like the listing sites did a decade ago, except the auctions garner more of the high end books.
Another trend that continues is the shift to more ephemeral items, manuscripts, maps, images, and items other then traditional books. Visual and unique are increasingly valuable attributes. People like things they can easily display on a wall, and things that are one of a kind. The result is that images and manuscripts continue to generate increasing interest, even as traditional books struggle a bit for attention. Another important factor is familiarity to one's own lifetime experiences. This year the list is filled with comic books and comic book art, mainly U.S. action comics, interspersed with Hergé's French cartoon, Tintin. These are items today's buyers grew up with in their youth.
In a moment, we will look at the top 10, but first, here are a few other choices from the list. At the end of this article is a link to the entire AE Top 500.
Item 495 is a series of documents pertaining to the shooting of Johnny Torrio in Chicago in 1925. One of those documents is a signed deposition of Torrio's protege, Al Capone. Asked how many times he has been arrested in Chicago, Capone replies, “Every time something happens I get arrested.” Capone says he did not know who did the shooting, but when asked if he would say if he did know, Capone responds, “No, I value my life too much to tell if I did know.” $72,000.
Item 422 is a minor document signed by an obscure president. It is a ship's passport, a routinely issued document from presidents at the time. What makes this so valuable is that it was signed by President William Henry Harrison. Harrison took ill shortly after being inaugurated and died a month later. His signature as president, therefore, is extremely rare. $80,500.
Item 335 is an archive of memorabilia pertaining to Edgar Allen Poe, including family correspondence, pictures, a lock of Poe's hair, and the engagement ring he gave his childhood sweetheart when finding her later in life. Poe died before they could wed. $94,000.
Item 275 is a land document signed by explorers Meriwether Lewis and Joseph Clark. It is the only known document signed by both in private hands. $110,000.
Item 191 is the contract Sitting Bull signed to appear in Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The Sioux Chief toured with Buffalo Bill during 1885. $155,350.
Item 168 is a letter from English King Richard III from 1484 or 1485 asking a justice of the peace to assist a nobleman in the return of his manor. $169,338.
Item 143 is the original manuscript and a typescript for an F. Scott Fitzgerald unpublished short story, circa 1920, entitled The I.O.U. $194,500.
Item 117 is an autographed manuscript of the Ave Maria by composer Giuseppe Verdi. $232,400.
Item 22 is Todd McFarlane's original cover art for a 1990 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man #328. $657,250.
And now, here is the AE Top 10:
AE Top 500 Auction Sales for 2012
Edward Curtis' North American Indian appears twice in the top 10. Courtesy Christie's.
10. Exposition abrégée du système du monde selon les principes de Monsieur Newton... by Émilie Du Châtelet. The manuscript books of discussion and translation of Newton's Principia by Ms. Du Châtelet, of whom Voltaire wrote, she was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” $1,249,300.
9. The North American Indian. Edward Curtis' great photographic series on the American Indians published from 1907-1930. $1,440,000.
8. Liber Insularum Archipelagi, an illuminated manuscript by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, circa 1450. $1,762,500.
7. Emancipation Proclamation, the “authorized edition,” one of 26 of 48 copies signed by President Lincoln known to survive. These copies were sold to raise funds for the soldiers. $2,127,500.
6. Mahzor, an illuminated manuscript Hebrew prayerbook, circa 1490. $2,395,530.
5. Archive of manuscript material consisting of thousands of pages from “the genius of modern Russian cinema,” Andrei Tarkovsky, from 1967-1986. $2,395,600.
4. Illuminated manuscript portolan atlas of the world on vellum by Battista Agnese, from 1542. $2,770,500.
3. The North American Indian. The second copy in the top 10 of Edward Curtis' massive work. $2,882,500.
2. The Birds of America, the double-elephant folio first edition of John James Audubon's color-plate illustrated work. Audubon's Birds of America is still the most expensive printed book ever sold, though this copy did not reach the $11 million-plus one sold for in 2010. $7,992,500.
1. The U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and key acts of the first Congress. This was George Washington's personal copy of the founding documents of the American government. $9,826,500.
The total value of all 500 was $123,005,884.
Late Addition: We apologize for missing a major item, one that would have qualified for #3 on this list. On December 5, in Sotheby's sale of Old Master and British Paintings, an illuminated manuscript, dated 1464, from the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth was sold for £3,849,250, or roughly $6,244,500 in U.S. dollars. The item can be seen at the following link: click here.
The complete AE Top 500 can be found by clicking here.
A note on methodology, Andy Warhol, and Apple Computer:
Compiling a list of works on paper is not quite as easy as it looks. What qualifies is sometimes obvious, other times not. Standard books and manuscripts are easy, but printed images can be particularly difficult. Prints and photographs, though “works on paper,” are often hard to categorize. We have attempted to draw the line between images that were meant to convey information (like books), vs. those that were meant to appeal as art. A print of a drawing depicting a historic event, or some far away place during the Age of Discovery, makes the cut. A print of a work of art does not. The same applies to photographs. Early photographs, in particular, before photography was thought of as an art, are most likely to appear. Sometimes, works of art appear in book form. Now what? If it is bound and includes at least a little text, it is included. A portfolio in a box is not so likely. A plate from Audubon, or a drawing by Arthur Rackham used to illustrate a book, make the cut. A print of a work by Picasso or Andy Warhol do not.
Speaking of Andy Warhol, no one better illustrates the need for these limitations than Mr. Warhol. If his prints were considered “works on paper,” he would overwhelm this list. Books would practically disappear. Four of Mr. Warhol's works would have appeared in the top 6, five in the top 10. An incredible 165 Warhol items sold at prices high enough to qualify for the Top 500. Obviously, rarity is not a requirement. Two copies of his “Piss Painting,” featuring pigment and urine, would have made the cut. Take that, Shakespeare. Shakespeare just beat out “Piss Paintings” on the list 3-2. Does this tell us something about our culture? It does explain why Warhol could not be included on this list.
And, we don't even track art auctions. These are from the books and prints category. There's no telling how much other Warholiana was sold. The Warhol material we track, which is overwhelmingly prints, not original art, took in $61 million. That's an average of $370,000 each. Those who came of age when Warhol was the trendsetter in art and culture are now in their peak earning years. Will he always be considered cutting edge, will his work stand the test of time like Leonardo or Rembrandt, or will he be considered by coming generations as yesterday's trendy fashion? If his appeal fades with his generation, there will be an enormous amount of the prolific Mr. Warhol's art out there that was purchased at astronomical prices seeking to find a new home.
Finally, we come to the hardest call for the list, the last item to make the cut. It may also be the most important. #56 on the list, with a sale price of $374,500, was an Apple I computer. It was made by Steve Wosniak, the technician, with help from his business partner, Steve Jobs. The year was 1976, and it was their first retail computer. It sold then for the devilish price of $666.66. Keyboard, monitor, and power supply were extra. Fewer than 50 are known to survive, just 6 in working order like this one. We can take the easy way out for justifying the inclusion of this item. It comes with the printed owner's manual. However, this early personal computer may have been the most dramatic development in the book world since Gutenberg invented the press over 500 years earlier. It opened the door to a new way of reading and writing – on a monitor, not paper. In time, it would lead to electronic books and “printed” reading accessed via the internet. It would lead to bookselling on listing sites, and library catalogues on a screen. The computer has turned the printed world upside down. For better or worse, the Apple belongs here.