Immortality has a Price
By Bruce McKinney
At Bloomsbury New York on December 3rd the hammer will fall on a single owner sale, a small group of exceptional early printed books and other items relating to the new world I acquired between 1992 and 2002. Some people build monuments in cemeteries. I chose to build mine with books. With this sale and its catalogue I hope to leave something both less substantial but more certain than a marble stone, a footprint that future generations may chance upon from time to time to note my ownership. In that way my connection to book collecting may continue long after I've turned my last page.
The sale will be unusual in one respect. Information on source, date purchased and price paid is included. Auctions, in the modern era, are almost always silent on purchase history. This sale will be among the most transparent on record, certainly the most transparent in modern times. As well, for anyone interested in how auctions work this sale will present an extraordinary view, the chance to observe how a collection does as an investment over more than ten years.
For the field of collectible books it is also a signal moment as the market struggles to right itself after the Wall Street collapse. Traditionalists hold that all downturns are aberrations, variations from the norm which is 3 to 7 % year over year price increases. The market that swoons recovers. On the other side is a smaller group, perhaps 10% of all dealers, who measure their business in sales every day and lower prices to restore volume when it slows.
I'm of an in-between view that the category of highly collectible has been narrowing but remains relentlessly strong for material inside its shifting borders. New material is of course always fighting its way into the category. Other things long disdained are rediscovered and of course old friends sometimes abandoned. The material I'm consigning is mostly heartwood.
In less certain times all auctions of important material loom large. This fall, for early, rare and important material relating to the age of discovery this sale is a signal event. If it does well it will confirm values in the category and project optimism to the market-at-large. To use stock market parlance, I believe the market is over-sold and due for recovery.
If there is gathering stability and possible recovery it will be evident in the prices because for them to achieve any positive significance there will have to be multiple bidders. The estimates are low and every item available at 80% of the low estimate. The estimates are also often much lower than what I paid and in every case well below what many believe is current value. Here are some examples.
3. Dati, Giuliano [1445-1523] Il Secondo Cantare dell 'India.
Rome [Between 11 August 1494 and 10 August 1495]
First edition of Dati's description in verse of the East Indies, issued to meet
demand for news of Columbus's discoveries. An important and rare incunable.
Acquisition: purchased from Librairie Thomas-Scheler  $110,000
Estimated at $50,000 to $80,000
5. [BERGOMENSIS] Jacobus Philippus FORESTI (1434-1520). Nouissime
historia omniu[m] repercussiones, nouiter [editae]… que Supplementum
supplementi Chronicaru[m] nuncupantur.
Venice: Albertinus de Lissona Vercellensis, 4 May 1503.
Acquisition: Lenox / New-York Historical Society sale, Sotheby's New York, 29 January 1995, lot 51, $2,587.50.
Estimate $5,000 - $7,000
9 SCHOENER, Johann (1477-1547). Luculentissima quaeda[m] terrae totius
descriptio: cu[m] multis utilissimis Cosmographiae iniciis. [A very clear
description of the whole earth, with many useful cosmographic elements].
Nuremberg: Johann Stuchs, 1515.
The earliest major treatise on the globe and its manufacture by the pioneer of globe-making in Europe, advancing Waldseemüller's concepts of the world in spherical (globe) form; this, the only edition, complete with the original errata slip. An essential source book for the early production.
Acquisition: purchased from H. P. Kraus, cat. 185
1990 (but 1998), item 20, $37,500.
Estimate $20,000 - $30,000
Immortality has a Price
The Hiftory of Trauayle, 1577
15 CORTÉS, Hernando (1485-1547). La preclara Narratione di Ferdinando
Cortese della Nuoua Hispagna…
Venice: Bernardino de Viano, 1524.
First complete edition in Italian. the earliest surviving printed account of new
Spain by the infamous Spanish conquistador.
Acquisition: sale, Sotheby's New York, 29 January
1995, lot 38, $3,737.50.
Estimate $5,000 - $8,000
16 MARTYR, Peter (1457-1526). De orbe novo … decades.
Alcalá de Henares: Miguel de Eguía, December 1530.
Rare first complete edition, with all eight Decades containing Peter Martyr's accounts of the great voyages of the age, a fundamental source of
knowledge of the earliest encounters.
Acquisition: Botfield sale, Christie's London, 30 March 1994, lot 8, $24,000.
Estimated $30,000 to $50,000
19 MARTYR, Peter (1457-1526) - oviedo y vald es gonzal ofernand ez de (1428-1557). Summario de la General Historia de L'Indie
Occidentali Cavato da libri scritti dal signor don Pietro Martyre…
Venice: October and December 1534.
An important collection of narratives and the work of several authors. perhaps
the earliest voyage collection, a work of tremendous importance in the dissemination of knowledge of the new world to Europe.
Acquisition: purchased from William Reese Company (2000), $35,000.
Estimated $20,000 to $30,000
The value of books is of course not expressed exclusively as price. Their significance is actually much more important and it is expressed by the communal will of institutions, authors and researchers, collectors and dealers who, by their incremental inclusion and exclusion from exhibitions and texts send material hurtling into oblivion or hoist it high for the maddened throngs to acknowledge. No one can predict future taste or opinion but what can be said of these items, the newest of which is 384 years old, is that they have so far stood the test of time and look to have legs. That some, perhaps most will return to auction occasionally seems likely and that some evidence of my relationship to them continues also probable.
To ensure the collection the fairest possible hearing great effort has been expended on the catalogue and both reserves and estimates set low. As well, a bookplate unique to the sale was important and for that I turned to E. M. Ginger of 42 Line in Oakland, California. Succeed or not, the bookplate adds complex narrative to books that on their own are valuable. The plate includes a scene of seismic upheaval in the middle ages and the line Liceat Decernere Foro, let the market decide. In accounts yet to be written, writers will know what we can not yet discern, how the sale went and in the decades ahead, how these books have done. No doubt, every decade or so fresh stories will appear. In time a verdict will be rendered but until enough time has passed, it won't be certain.
For me this is all worth the effort. I love the complexity of books. The possibility of weaving a single thread through important books and sending them on to posterity tagged with a marker that identifies them to future collectors is very appealing. Collecting books is after all a complex game.
For those in New York on December 2nd I'll speak for 45 minutes on collecting in the modern era and then take questions for 15 more. The location is Bloomsbury's at 6 West 48th Street, the time 6:30 pm.