Thursday, August 20, 2009

The nuance of Bookplates: The more important the name, the more value attached…

Aug. 20, 2009
Posted by Joe

Serious book collectors are often condition conscious, as are astute and sophisticated collectors across all venues.

When playing the book collecting game, however, the two biggest factors are the condition of the binding and the condition of the text itself. The cleaner, brighter, and less worn the copy, the better, of course. I recently had a discussion with a serious new book collector about a certain condition factor associated with rare books, and thought I might share the crux of our discourse.

The issue was simple, and to some, probably boring, but I don't judge... Anyway, the central question was, "Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have some previous owner's bookplate pasted into a rare book?"

My answer to this question was, well, yes. It can be a good thing or bad thing. To me, it all depends on the particular bookplate in the particular book. The hierarchy of bookplate desirability seems to me to be threefold.

For the purposes of our story today, let's take a handsome first edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Universally considered Twain's best work, a great American novel, and in the upper echelon of worldwide literary importance, the first printing of the first edition of ol' Tom Sawyer's comrade is also quite valuable to collectors.

Now, suppose that you open that first edition copy and see Mark Twain's bookplate glued to the front pastedown. Actually, you would see a bookplate reading "This BOOK belongs to SAMUEL CLEMENS Hannibal, MO" but let's not split hairs... Same person. Anyway, what you would have there would be, in the words of Family Guy's Peter Griffin, a freakin' sweet book! Twain's bookplate on one of his own books indicates that it was his own personal copy from his own library (usually). Thus, you have a unique first edition of Huck Finn, the author's copy, and a highly desirable rare book.

Also unique but of somewhat lesser value would be a copy of Huck Finn containing the bookplate of, say, another famous writer, personality, public figure, or celebrity. If Theodore Roosevelt's bookplate were affixed to the book, then you have a more desirable copy of Huck Finn. The bookplate adds value to the book, though how much value is difficult to quantify. Let's just say that a book dealer would hype TR's bookplate for all its worth as a major selling point of the book.

Public figures are not the only book people who can add value with their bookplate. Often, if a famous or well-respected collector has seen fit to put his or her bookplate inside a rare volume, such a strategy will also add value, for a couple of reasons:

One, book collectors sometimes collect books from other collectors. Also, a previous bookman's bookplate identifies the particular copy at hand, adding a level of provenance and trustworthiness to the book not necessarily present in other copies. We have at least two examples of this type of bookplate in our upcoming October 15-16 Rare Books Auction #6030. First, we have a first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four with the bookplate of famed collector H. Bradley Martin, whose library was sold at a highly-publicized auction in 1989. Second, we have a beautiful first edition of Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth with esteemed bibliophile A. Edward Newton's 1909 bookplate affixed to the front pastedown. In both cases, the bookplates might not seem to add much to the books, but to serious collectors, it really does matter.

The third level of bookplate desirability, and FAR lower down the curve than the first two instances mentioned above, is the situation where a "nobody" has glued his or her bookplate down on a rare book.

If I were ever lucky enough to have a first edition of Huck Finn left to me in a will (the only way I'd ever be able to afford one), and I wanted to gently devalue the book immediately, one of the best things I could do was glue my bookplate onto the front free endpaper… See, book collectors don't care about me (Yes they do, Joe! They do! -Noah). I'm not A. Edward Newton, Theodore Roosevelt, or Mark Twain. So, if a book collector finds my bookplate in a book he wants, he's likely to want to pay less for it because of what I've done. I've basically glued an eyesore into the book.

Bookplates are much like a previous owner's signature or inscription in a book. A first edition of Huck Finn signed by Mark Twain is awesome; one signed by me is just sad. Unless you collect books signed by me, and that just makes you sad…

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-Joe Fay

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