American Book Prices Current 1895-1995

Nicolas Barker  Original

The idea of the cumulation of book-auction records arose out of necessity, particularly in the business of selling rare books. The dealers were dependent upon bibliographies, priced earnings, and other scattered media for estimates of rarity or value. It was a time-consuming process, and a short-cut time-saver was a desideratum. In England Auction Prices was established to take care of the English and to some extent the Continental trade, but American books were featured only in a very limited way.

Victor Hugo Paltsits

Introduction, American Book Prices Current (1944)

The inception of Book Prices Current (as it was actually titled) in London in 1886 was indeed the result of the needs of the book trade. But how had these needs come to make themselves felt? What other pressures had made the existence of such a record necessary? For a century past, the European book trade had been adjusting to the extraordinary bouleversement of habits and ways of conducting business that had continued, hardly altered by the invention of printing, since the Middle Ages. A sequence of events -- the secularization of monastic houses and the dispossession of their libraries, especially in Germany, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars -- had wrenched an incalculable number of books from shelves that they had occupied for centuries past.1 For decades the trade had been trying to digest this vast surplus.

The process itself required regulation. This took three forms. The first was restriction by subject matter. True, classification had occupied the minds of scholars and the book trade since the publication of Conrad Gesner's Bibliotheca universalis in 1545 (or even earlier), and the auction trade in l7th-century Holland and l8th-century France had taken advantage of terms like "Theologia" or "Belles-Lettres" to divide up what they offered. But these titles when they existed, were little more than a lax method of indicating content. Only Guillaume de Bure and his homonymous son had given them any rigor. In England, classification was mostly limited to division by format, which reflected the order in which the books had stood on the shelves before being sent for sale.

The idea of forcing the conduit of books into more rigid categories to create a market was one method of dealing with the superfluity. Its formalization was largely due to the titanic figure of Jacques-Charles Brunet (1780-1867). 2 His Manuel du libraire et de l'amateur des livres first appeared in 1803; its fifth edition, completed in 1865, had its final Supplément in 1880.

The second method of regulation was more brutal. It involved the creation of an ideal content, by comparing multiple copies of the same book (or what appeared to be the same book), and, largely on the basis of the collation formula indicated by the binder's signatures, determining how many leaves it ought to contain. If any copy failed to measure up to this ideal, another would be found that could supplement it. Sometimes as many as six copies would be "amalgamated" in this way and the residue thrown away. To us, this seems not only an act of vandalism, but also the lamentable destruction of valuable historic evidence. Too often, the copies supposed to be identical but imperfect we now recognize to have been different states or issues, even editions, bibliographically distinct and in their own terms complete. We may regret the destruction, but we must also recognize it as a reaction, if unconscious, to the burden created for the book trade by the same vast superfluity.

The third and last product of it was fixed pricing. Throughout the mid-19th century, gold, and with it currency, held its value, and book prices fluctuated very little. This was not the case in the first third of the century, when markets were at first artificially fuelled by war, and then declined. The Valdarfer Boccaccio, £2,260 in the Roxburghe sale in 1812 fell to less than half that in the White Knights Sale in 1819, while the vellum Sweynheym and Pannartz Livy, £903 at the Edwards sale in 1815, dropped to £262 in the Dent sale in 1827.

The book trade had an interest in stabilizing prices. Payne and Foss's regular priced catalogues had a strong influence in this, and the Heber sales in the 1830s, if they never reached the giddy heights of Dibdin's "cometary" period, showed a consistent level of pricing. Other markets might waver, as "railway fever" came and went in Britain, Europe and America, but the solid base of the industrial revolution kept the book trade firm, strong enough to withstand a substantial influx, like Heber's books. It was on this foundation that the monumental catalogues of Henry George Bohn (1796-1884) and, after him, Bernard Quaritch (1819-1899) were laid.

Catalogues like these, several inches thick and containing over 20,000 entries, came to serve two secondary purposes: increasingly subject-ordered, they canonized the new categories, elaborating and sub-dividing them; as the prices of the books, like the descriptions, were held as standing type, they remained remarkably constant. So these giant catalogues, listing most of the books in or out of print published in Europe (and, although it was only a small beginning, America), came to be used by librarians and by other booksellers, as a guide to the "right" price. Since copies sold could almost always be supplied again from the great whirlpool of books still circulating, a book and its price remained constant, year after year.

It was in this world of apparent certainty and established values that the first major American book-collectors, John Carter Brown and James Lenox, formed their collections. Inevitably, most of the books they sought were to be found in Europe, and if American entrepreneurs, Obadiah Rich or Henry Stevens of Vermont, found them books and interposed their services, that intervention did not obscure the extent to which their customers depended on the European trade, not merely for books but for the way in which they collected them. Both Brown and Lenox came, in the fullness of time, to form highly individual collections, but in doing so they both followed highly conventional paths.

Change was, nonetheless, on the way. The Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, so short and one-sided, might seem to have had little impact on the book trade, but in fact the causes that led to it and its aftermath reflect wider changes in western Europe. The fragility of Third Empire and Third Republic France encouraged the formation of small cabinet collections. portable in extremity. French collectors took the lead in this direction; they found English imitators: Robert Turner, who lived and bought his books in Paris, and Frederick Locker-Lampson, whose Rowfant Library popularized the mode in England. French taste was also dominant in bookbinding in America, and the earliest "art" binderies, such as the Club Bindery, reveal a stylistic dependence on Lortic, Duru and Trautz-Bauzonnet.

In Germany, the result of Bismarck's policies both before and after the war and the Zollverein again had an effect, if equally indirect, on the book trade, and not only in Prussia but also in other German-speaking countries. It also made those initially outside the Prussian sphere of influence, notably Jacques Rosenthal in Munich, more aware of markets outside their home states.

The unification of Italy after the Risorgimento had a not dissimilar effect, and the links of blood and trade that joined the Rosenthals with the Florentine Olschkis created a dynasty happily still with us. Apart from Obadiah Rich's exploration of Spanish archives, the Iberian peninsulas remained closed. Quaritch's failure to secure the Romana collection only emphasized the blank between the sale of the Marques de Astorga in 1826 and the Morante sale in 1872.

Inevitably, Britain provided American collectors with most of the books that they wanted, and their habits were formed by the style and state of the British manner. When Henry Bohn wrote to Lord Lindsay during the Stuart de Rothesay sale in 1855 that "the Americans . . . are buying with great spirit anything which in the remotest degree concerns them," 3 he meant the Spanish books in which Lord Stuart's collection was so rich, and the perceptible accent on "remotest" indicates that Americans were expected to buy books in English. John Russell Smith, that enterprising bookseller and publisher at 36 Soho Square (where a century later my own apprenticeship in publishing began), produced in 1865 the first extensive catalogue of Americana, issued by a British bookseller. But for the most part the London trade regarded business from America (inevitably by correspondence, rarely if ever supplemented by visits) with the same passive and detached attention as they did that of their more remote correspondents in Europe or outlying parts of Britain. However, change was on the way, a change which affected the volume and extent of American book-collecting and the nature of the interest that the British book trade took in it.

American book-collectors, notably James Lenox, were baffled by one aspect of the book trade in London which made no sort of business sense to them. The principle was firmly spelt out in a letterhead which Bernard Quaritch began to use about 1870. Part of this initial exhortation stated:

Whenever two gentlemen give to B.Q. a commission for one and the same lot, he buys it as cheaply as possible for the gentleman who has fixed the highest commission. In such cases only B.Q. charges his fee upon the full commission, in all other cases, upon the cost at the sale. The unsuccessful Competitor is sure to have a similar advantage some other time.4

American competitors were far from sure that such an advantage would recur. They did not understand the unwritten, unspoken, time-honoured custom of the London trade that the book seller's task was to keep prices down, or at least down to a level consonant with the prices marked in their catalogues. The whole process of the "ring" (which, since it benefits the weak at the expense of the strong, seems to the outsider a bewilderingly socialist form of mutual benefit association) was based on this principle, connived at by the auctioneers. They had enough business, given the volume of banks in circulation, to keep them going, and they had an interest in seeing their principal customers, the booksellers, kept happy.5 Quaritch was more explicit in private to his customers:

In cases where I have a double commission, I still buy as low as I can, but charge my commission on the sum commissioned, not at which the lot was bought. I arrange fairly between my employers'letting them have the advantage of the money saved.6

He did not explain further that such was his dominance of the London trade that he could withdraw his commission purchases from the operations of the ring, contemptuously scattering the cumulative shares of the difference, in successive settlements, between saleroom and final price on his competitors.

It was perhaps as well that this added refinement was unknown to American customers. As it was, James Lenox's furious outburst in 1874 against Quaritch's printed custom had its roots in the belief that a bid given should be fully executed in the room. Thanks to the generosity of Lord Lindsay (now Earl of Crawford), Lenox got his book, the 1686 Bordeaux New Testament in French, and in his letter of gratitude concluded:

And yet your Lordship must allow me to add that I find it difficult to understand the code of morals of the purchasers at London book sales as I do of the speculators in Wall Street.7

This judgment more accurately reflected the habits of the French collectors, despised by Quaritch and Lindsay, like Felix Solar and Leopold Double, whose collections were, in Lindsay's words,

mere accumulation, of rare and precious books, purchased for the purpose of ostentation and luxe by the mushroom speculators of the day.8

But, willingly or not, American collectors conformed to Wall Street standards in one respect: they required not only fixed prices, but also an open market which responded to the same valuation.

Whether or not the British market would have responded to general pressure as Quaritch did in the individual case of James Lenox is a question that cannot be simply answered. For the matter was overtaken and submerged by a catastrophe whose far-reaching consequences included an irrevocable change in the hitherto small, cosy, club-like atmosphere of the old book trade. For a decade before Lenox?s outburst, the English economy, weakened by the impact of the Civil War on the cotton trade, was further debilitated by the inability of home agriculture to compete with grain from the Midwest. Then, in 1875 -- he year after the Lenox incident -- came the first of five successive bad harvests. This blow fell heaviest on the nobility and gentry, the owners of the great country houses and estates. Their income from produce and rents diminished; moreover, they were obliged to fall back on reserves to support not only themselves and their families but also an extended network of dependents in the traditional social fabric of the country. The value of agricultural land fell, and a period of political unrest ensued, punctuated by measures to extend the franchise beginning with Disraeli's Reform Bill in 1867.

The problem of the traditional landowning classes was increased by the fact that what reserves they had were tied by entails and family settlements extending over several generations. A series of parliamentary acts, beginning with the Real Property Limitation Act (1874) and Settled Estates Act (1877) and culminating in the Conveyancing Acts (1881 and 1882) and the Settled Land Act (1882), for all of which Earl Cairns (1819-1885), the Lord Chancellor, was chiefly responsible, provided the necessary relief.

The results were immediate: chattels could now be sold to meet other liabilities, and as always books were among the first to go. The Duke of Marlborough, the first major landowner to take advantage of the new freedom offered, began, in fact, by selling the Marlborough Gems as a single lot at Christie's in 1875 for the startling price of £10,000. Early in 1881, F.S. Ellis was engaged by the Duke to sell the great library formed by Charles, 3rd Earl of Sunderland (1674-1722), which had passed by inheritance to Blenheim and of which the Duke had printed a catalogue in 1872. Two negotiations for sale en bloc for £20,000 failed, and it was dispersed in five sales by Puttick&Simpson between 1881 and 1883, the 13,858 lots bringing £56,581. This resounding success opened the floodgates. William Beckford's collection, which had passed to his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton, came next, followed by the Stourhead and Towneley libraries, with those of the Thorold family of Syston Park, and the Earl of Jersey at Osterley.

Bernard Quaritch fought a titanic rearguard action to sustain book prices through this deluge. If his favorite customers, the Earls of Crawford, were obliged to sell the best of the Bibliotheca Lindesiana in 1887 and 1889, he found new customers: William Bragge the Sheffield steel-master, Lord Amherst of Hackney, William Morris, and an ever-increasing circle of American collectors, among them Theodore Irwin of Oswego, Mrs. Abby Pope, and J.P. Morgan.

But inevitably the saleroom, not the booksellers' catalogues, became the index of book prices. It was no coincidence, then, that in 1886 Book Prices Current was launched. It was published by the enterprising firm of Elliott Stock and edited by J. Herbert Slater.9 The first volume, dated 1888, covered sales from December 1886 to December 1887.

Rather oddly, from our perspective, Book Prices Current provided an anthology of the main items in each successive sale in the order in which they had been sold; the price of any particular book could only be found if you knew which sale it had appeared in. The inconvenience of this arrangement was mitigated by the publication every ten years of alphabetical indices, but the inconvenience of having to look up everything twice was (and is) considerable. Not until 1917 was the arrangement altered so that each year was arranged in alphabetical order, with a table of the main sales at the beginning. The limitations of Book Prices Current as a work of reference were obvious. The gap was filled in 1903 with the first volume of Book Auction Records, edited by Frank Karslake. From the outset, B.A.R. listed the books sold in simple alphabetic order, with the prices and the sales in which they had been reached set out in a separate column on the right. It was ideal for those who wanted to know in a hurry what a particular book was worth and even easier to consult than the Bohn or Quaritch catalogues.

In the second volume of Book Prices Current, Slater commented on the relative prices of books in different subject areas. Books about America particularly drew his attention, among them a volume of twelve English tracts, eight of them about North America, beginning with Las Cases The Spanish colonie 1583, which had been sold as lot 43 in Christie's sale of books "from the library of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke" at Wimpole Hall on June 29, 1888. It brought £555 and was bought by Henry Stevens. Such works, wrote Slater,

now realise enormous sum and appear likely to bring even more as time goes on.... All books of this class are eagerly sought after, and will probably soon be absorbed by American libraries.10

But it was not just Americana that engaged the interest of a new, much larger, enthusiastic generation of American collectors. The Grolier Club had been founded in New York in 1884 with Robert Hoe, enriched by the worldwide sales of the printing presses that bore his name, as its first President. Not surprisingly, the emphasis of the Club, expressed in its first publications, was on the quality of book production. But its catalogues of literary first editions showed how strongly this vein of collecting, which can be traced back to Heber, had taken root across the Atlantic. The same enthusiasm was extended to the already substantial volume of North American literature, which was approached with the same increasingly scientific method, and increasing revenues, as the English classics.

Robert H. Dodd of Dodd, Mead&Company had taken a leading part in this development. With American collectors he had watched the growing pace of the British market through the sales of the 1880s. The need for an annual comparable with Book Prices Current recording American auction sales and the prices of books that appealed and were available to American collectors had become apparent to him. The means of achieving this objective were already at hand in the form of Luther Livingston, who was engaged by Dodd. According to Victor Paltsits, Livingston was "then already a highly competent bookseller's clerk and exhibited a prodigious memory, freely displaced at the disposal of those who made inquiry of him."11

Luther S. Livingston, born Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 7, 1864; died Cambridge, Mass., December 24, 1914, was a heroic figure. He shouldered the burden of planning and supervising ABPC, writing an introductory chapter, giving a general view of the sales for the year, and an elaborate and complete index. The first year covered ran from September 1, 1894 to August 31, 1895, and it was indeed, as the circular advertising it stated, "similar in arrangement and scope to the English publication of that name." In fact, the entire editorial and even typographic arrangement of its pages make this clear; like BPC, it listed the sales sequentially, not alphabetically, hence the need for the index. This was changed to an alphabetic listing the next year in the volume for 1896, well ahead of either of the English auction records. The success of ABPC is attested by the print run: the 400 copies in 1895 became 600 in 1896. The price was six dollars.

There were other improvements on the English model. "Reports, of all important autograph and manuscripts sold at auction during the year" were included, and separately indexed from 1896. The record of "the large number of books by American authors and books relating to American subjects" which did not appear in BPC would thus make ABPC" even more useful to American booksellers, librarians and book-buyers in general." Thus, from the outset, Livingston and Dodd aimed their work at the reader, not the auction houses whence the material come, They did not, initially, include European sales, even when they contained American material. BPC, by contrast, did record the main results of the Charles B. Foote sale at Bangs' rooms on Broadway in 1894-95.

The Charles B. Foote sale of "English Literature" and "Modern English and American Authors" in New York City at Bangs' Rooms in 1894-95 typified the new style of American collecting. (It was the first named sale in the USA to contain any of the Forman-Wise forgeries). And it may have been its predictable success that set Livingston to work. Success was accompanied by improvement. The alphabetic arrangement was suggested by Wilberforce Eames and other "professional friends." This necessitated editorial assistance provided by Ida Stewart and "Miss C.E. Dyett who gradually took almost entire charge of the routine compilation of copy for the printer, prepared on cards." Sales in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were included from the outset; Cincinnati and Chicago were added in 1896 and 1897. The edition grew to 960 by 1902 and in 1901 and 1902 editions of 25 and 30 respectively were issued on large paper, in quarto. Due to the new volume of sales, the superfluous index was dropped in 1906; it was not until 1912 that Miss Dyett's name appeared in the acknowledgements of assistance.

So much for the publishing arrangements in the early days: What of the sales? In his first introduction Livingston wrote that

Prices which even five years ago would have been called exorbitant are today considered moderate. The demand exceeds supply and at each sale some buyer is prepared to pay, for a fine copy, a little more than the book has ever brought at any previous sale. This can be said of the rarest books only, for the commoner books, and especially interior copies, have not shown any marked increase in price.

Oddly enough, the most expensive book recorded in 1895 was an exception to this rule. The copy of Poe's Tamerlane that cost $1,450 on April 25 at Bangs? "in a handsome Parisian binding by Lortic" was the same copy that, in wrappers, made $1,850 in the George T. Maxwell sale two years earlier. As subsequent records of this copy make clear, the wrappers had not been jettisoned but bound in, and the drop in price is less likely to be an exceptionally early appreciation of original condition than a temporary lapse of Livingston's Law, due perhaps in part to an American economy in the trough of depression.

The following year, 1896, saw the first record of a major Philadelphia sale, that of the Americana of Moses Polock (the Rosenbachs' uncle) including early Franklin imprints, and, it was noted, "Mr. Quaritch, the great London bookseller, sent over two consignments for sale." -- Quaritch, who in 1868, sending a commission to Bouton "one of the smartest booksellers in America," observed of the local trade "the auctioneers are ignorant but respectable, though in matters of commission an auctioneer can never be trusted absolutely." There followed Bierstadt's "treasures of the Grolier Club publication" and Charles Frederickson's Shelley collection. Of Henry T. Cox's first editions of Dickens and Thackeray Livingston observed that they "sold for more than equally good copies could have been bought for at the prominent bookshops," and that Kelmscott Press books were well up. This was the hothouse atmosphere on which Wise and Forman planted their forgeries, and the first copy of the famous "Reading" Sonnets to reach auction anywhere sold for $440 in the W.H. Arnold sale in 1901.

This can be set against the $7,860 paid for all four folios of Shakespeare in the Augustin Daly sale at the American Art Association the previous year. This in turn seems small by comparison with the $5,544 paid for a Dublin 1792 "Douai" Bible enlarged to 42 volumes and the 1936 set of Boswell and Johnsoniana in 23 volumes which made $2,965, a monument to the now declining taste for "grangerization."

In 1902 the Maxwell copy of Tamerlane, in its new Lortic binding came up for sale again in the collection of Thomas J. McKee and made $2,050. In the same sale Burns's copy of Shakespeare (Edinburgh, 1771) was bought by George D. South for $111; evidently, it was still too early for such an association to be appreciated. The contentious takeover of Bangs&Company by John Anderson in 1903 led to the establishment of the rival Merwin-Clayton Company founded by two of the dissident Bangs staff. They handled the 1905 sale of the library of John Kendrick Bangs, the humorist, which showed the extent to which Wise and Forman, had used the now defunct company to establish values for their forgeries. This in turn shows how the auction record had come to be accepted as the index of book price levels. All this had come about in less than 20 years. It is hard to appreciate now the extent, as well as rapidity, of this revolution.

Jacob Blanck, writing in the 50th volume of ABPC, identified the years 1908-9 as "a definite turning point in collecting American first editions."12 He was thinking primarily of the libraries of Frank Maier and J. Chester Chamberlain but included those of Henry W. Poor and Louis I. Haber. To us now, it seems a more gradual progress, indistinguishable from a wider bibliophilic development. In 1906, for example, Henkels' sale of the books of William H. Kemble of Philadelphia promised the first Audubon sale record, a set of both Birds and Quadrupeds combined fetching $4,350. In 1907-8 came the Louis L. Dillman collection (the first major Chicago library to come to auction), rich in Romantics, and that of George M. Williamson, with its fashionable emphasis on R.L. Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. But all these, including the Edwin B. Holden sale in 1920, were but precursors of the gigantic Hoe sale in 1921.

The interest awakened by a sale of these proportions and such quality brought buyers over from Europe, not least among them Bernard Alfred Quaritch (the great man's son), who on an early visit to America had quickly realized the potential of the new market. Hoe had been one of his customers, and other major buyers included George C. Thomas, W.A. White, and J.P. Morgan. Now, at the sale of Hoe's library, records were broken left and right. George D. Smith paid $50,000 for Henry E. Huntington's copy of the 42-line Bible on vellum for which Quaritch had paid £3,400 in the Perkins sale in 1873, breaking the record price of £2,260 for the Valdarfer Boccaccio which had stood since the Roxburghe sale in 1812. The unique complete Morte Darthur bought by Abby Pope at the Osterley sale now went to J.P. Morgan for $42,800; Beckford's copy of Blake's Milton made $9,000; and, most startling, $10,000 was paid for the 4-page Winthrop Declaration 1645.

Altogether, 3,358 lots made just under $1,000,000, a remarkable record in itself, and the residue of the collection the next year did scarcely less well, the Syston Park 1st Folio, £590 in 1884, returning at $13,000. The grand total for both parts was $1,932,065. Luther Livingston was moved beyond his normal acute analysis of content and trends to a philosophical, even psychological, view of collecting on this scale:

We who watched the dispersal of the Hoe collection have marveled at the huge advances upon the prices paid by him. But in counting up the profits we have left out of our reckoning that larger profit, not of dollars, but of months and years of joy in possession which made up Mr. Hoe's half century of collecting. Mr. Hoe had a rough and unpleasing exterior and an overbearing manner, but back of that and back of the restless, energetic businessman there was the true collector, the true bibliophile. And we may be certain that the happiest hours of his long and busy life were those spent among his books.

To a certain extent also this hobby of collecting fine books brings with it its own reward. The collector has the joys of acquisition and of possession and at the end, if he has collected with discrimination, his library will sell for as much, or nearly as much as he has paid -- this at least (allowing for exceptions enough to prove the rule) is the record of the book-marker for the last century. In other words he "can eat his cake and have it too."13

This boutade proved to be Livingston's swan song. On November 30,1914, he was appointed first Librarian of Harvard's newly established Widener Library; less than a month later he was dead. Victor Paltsits stepped into the breach. In 1917 Dodd sold ABPC to E.P. Dutton&Co. Miss Dyett continued briefly as compiler, succeeded by Mary H. Warren, who continued as editor when R.R. Bowker succeeded Dutton in 1926.

In 1919, ABPC recorded the sale of a copy of Tamerlane, at $11,600; the copy of Comus sold as one of the Huntington duplicates on April 4, 1918 for $9,400 returned to the market on June 19, 1919 and made $14,250. In 1920 the sale of Samuel P. Avery brought medieval manuscripts to the New York saleroom, a book of hours making $4,350. It was also the year in which Theodore Low De Vinne's printing library was sold, and Anderson acquired, through the nefarious mediation of John B. Stetson, the library of Harry Buxton Forman. This provenance was sufficiently vendible for the auctioneer to print a facsimile of the bookplate for those books not already provided with one.

But, with hindsight, the most distinctive and, in the long run, prophetic of all the sales in the decade was the Quinn sale. Quinn's feeling for modern authors was far ahead of his time, but had it not been for Dr. Rosenbach, stepping into the place left vacant by the sudden and premature death of George D. Smith, who can say what would have happened? The prices for the highest lots, notably Conrad, were not of the Doctor's making, since there were underbidders, but he paid them. He was equally dominant in the more familiar territory, Shakespeare's contemporaries, of the Herschel V. Jones sale in 1923.

Perhaps the most significant prices were those paid for exceptional Americana: notably James Terry's copy of Sanderson's Biographies of the Signers, suitably grangerized, which made $19,750, also in 1923. And even more the letter of intent of the Continental Congress, dated July 12, 1776, signed by Button Gwinnett, John Hancock, etc., which reached the startling price of $51,000 in 1927. The autograph of "Das Rheingold" at $15,400 was also a sign of things to come. The high note came at the end of the decade: the Kern sale broke all records again. Rosenbach faced fierce opposition from Gabriel Wells, Charles Sessler, and Barnet Beyer, and if he bought the 1787 Burns Poems with its wonderful presentation inscription for $23,500, he lost Shelley's Queen Mab 1863 to Wells at the incredible price of $68,000. Altogether, some 1,500 lots made over $1,700,000. Only, fourteen weeks later the stock market crashed, and as late as 1932, the introduction to ABPC expressed worry about "the uncertain conditions which characterize all trade."

It was perhaps the Lothian sale of books from Blickling Hall in Norfolk in 1933 that indicated an upward turn. Lord Lothian's motives for consigning these books to New York are obscure, but may have been connected with the national cowry over the sale of the Luttrell and Bedford Psalters in 1929. Although the result, were less than Cortlandt Bishop, the new owner of the joint American-Anderson Galleries, had hoped, the outcome was satisfactory: the Tickhill Psalter made $61,000, the Blickling Homilies $55,000 and Psalter $23,000. The Terry sales in 1934-35 added further stability, but even so, it is startling to find the Audubon sold in 1938 for $6,400 hailed in ABPC as "a record price for all time." This was the year, too, in which the American-Anderson Galleries finally collapsed, and Hiram Parke and Otto Bernet set up on their own.14

In 1940 the name of Edward Lazare appeared on the title page of ABPC for the first time, and remained there until the 1966 volume, except for the 1943-45 volumes when Colton Storm of the William L. Clements Library at Ann Arbor briefly took over. Even then the break was not absolute:

The editor owes thanks to S/Sgt. Edward Lazare for much assistance, in spite of the sergeant's more pressing duties and (the editor fears) at the expense of his leisure. Sergeant Lazare's amazing bibliographical knowledge prevented many errors; those which are found are the editor's. While he feels the temporary role an honor, the editor trusts that the sergeant will re-assume the editorship before too long a time has passed.15

The end of World War II coincided with the 50th anniversary of ABPC. Lazare was still officially away, but the next year he was back, in time for the Eldridge L. Johnson sale where the manuscript of "Alice in Wonderland" and two remarkable copies of the 1865 edition, one with Tenniel's illustrations bound in, made a total of $80,500 -- only a little over half what the late owner paid Dr. Rosenbach. At Lessing Rosenwald's generous suggestion , the manuscript was bought by a group of subscribers and given to the British Museum as a victory present. Next year produced a record price, however, which was to stand for many years, the $151,000 paid by Dr. Rosenbach for the Prince-Crowninshield-Stevens-Brinley-Vanderbilt-Whitney copy of The Bay Psalm Book

Looking back at the decade after World War II (and excluding the artificially inflated prices of the Bishop sale in 1949), the chief landmarks were in Americana: $54,000 for the fifth and final revision of the Gettysburg Address in 1949, $35,000 for 14 letters to Joshua F. Speed among the Oliver Barrett Lincolniana in 1952. It was this that no doubt tempted the astute Robinson brothers to consign the Phillipps copy, one of eight known, of The Journal of Major George Washington, 1754, to Parke-Bernet in 1955, where it was bought for Colonial Williamsburg by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for $25,000.

In 1958 ABPC, whose publication had been assumed by Lazare and his astute wife "Moni," made its most radical change by including prices of British sales. What appeared to be a basic contradiction of its original purpose was the natural outcome of the increasingly international book market as much as the cessation that year of BPC (then edited by Reginald Horrox). Thus the startling prices in the Chatsworth sale and at Mrs. Emerson's sale of W.A. White's Blake collection were now recorded in ABPC.

The late 1950s and 1960s represented a high point for Sotheby's and also an astonishing revival in the volume and quality of medieval manuscripts, with the sale of Dyson Perrins and Philipps collections, dominated by H.P. Kraus. The increase in prices could be startling: in New York the copy of the "1478" Caxton Chaucer (substantially imperfect) that made $13,000 in the Hogan sale in 1946 turned to $47,500 in 1963.

By now, however, ABPC was in difficulties. Its publication had got behind. And when the Columbia University Press acquired it from the Lazares in 1966, it could only issue the 1966 volume in 1969. Edith Hazen, happily still with us, became "senior editor," but the architect of the publication arrangement was her husband, the eminent bibliographer Allen Hazen. Columbia remained uneasily ABPC's publisher for the 1966 to 1971 volumes (the last of which appeared in 1973). Edith Hazen departed after the 1968 volume, although she would again work on ABPC in the 1970s.

In 1970 the sale of Pierce Butler's annotated copy of the second printed draft of the Constitution reached a record $160,000. In 1972 the ownership of ABPC changed again. It was taken over by a courageous and (as it seemed then) absurdly young couple, Daniel J. Leab and Katharine Kyes Leab. He had been an editor at the Columbia University Press and was a historian and Dean at Columbia University. She, after editorially rescuing several Columbia University Press projects, most notably the multi-volume Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, had assumed responsibility for the Autographs&Manuscripts section of ABPC.

The Leabs admired Allen Hazen and listened to what he and Edith had to tell them about the merits and needs of the publication. They thought it could be rescued and bought it from the Columbia University Press. They have done it ever since: expanding dramatically the number of auction houses covered from a dozen to over 50 worldwide, modernizing production by going from 3 x 5 cards to innovative software, and most recently by preparing for the 21st century by making the volumes produced under their tenure available on CD-ROM.

Their first step was to bring ABPC up-to-date and this they did by producing four annuals in 2 1/2 years, using an army of eager young helpers. ABPC was back on course again and from 1975 onwards it has been a model of punctuality. A major part of this is due to the utilization of information technology and computer typesetting-all the while ensuring that the information provided in auctioneers' catalogues and, still more, the lists of prices and buyers' names was as accurate as they should be. In 1972 ABPC, at Kathy Leab's instigation, went outside the English-speaking market, including the Esmerian sale at Paris in its pages; from then on the major continental sales have continued to appear in it such as the massive seminal autograph auctions held by Stargardt. Australia also broke into ABPC?s pages. It seems absurd to regard the last 25 years as history, but in terms of book prices it seems as long or longer than the 75 that precede it.

During these years natural history books advanced significantly, with Dudley Massey carrying all before him at Christie's on May 9, 1973, including Redouté?s Les Lilliacées at £17,000, while Sotheby's retaliated with the Plesch sales, a significant advance in cataloging (by John Collins). Chicago figured largely for the first time in 1974, the Joyce sale producing astonishing prices for Conan Doyle manuscripts. In 1975, Texas, in the person of El Dieff, scooped the Sassoon sale at £107,919, and the Stockhausen Tamerlane made $123,000, almost 100 times the price recorded in the first volume of ABPC.

The year 1976 saw the coming together of the American and British markets, canonized by the merger of Parke-Bernet with Sotheby's to form a single business. It also saw Swann's 1,000th sale, a landmark no less significant in the home market. The sales of John Carter and A.N.L. Munby were a sadder milestone, but in 1977 Christopher de Hamel began his career at Sotheby's. This was the year of the Sion College and Evelyn sales, which can be seen now as landmarks in setting up the opposition to sales of "heritage" material in Britain. Next year was the year of the Gutenberg Bibles, three in one year, of which one, the General Theological Seminary copy, was sold at auction by Christie's in New York for $2,000,000.

The decade ended with the great, but finally vain, battle against the "buyers' surcharge," the clearest indication that the balance of power had moved from the buyer to the vendor. The price, reached in the Honeyman sale in 1980-81 for scientific books, compared with those in the Kenney sales, not 15 years earlier, reinforced this.

The Gospels of Henry the Lion at £7,400,000 at Sotheby's in 1983 set a record for medieval manuscripts which seems likely to last the century. (In the fall of 1994 the Codex Hammer sold at Christie's in New York for $28,000,000; it now holds the record for highest price at auction for a manuscript.) The successful sale of the Burckhardt-Wildt manuscript leaves in 1983 was a more influential event in auction terms. At a less stratospheric level the Sang collection of "Signers" at $320,000 was a landmark at least equal to the Terry set in 1923. In 1983, too, Bloomsbury Book Auctions was founded by schism from Sotheby?s, a welcome indication that the increase in the highest prices did not necessitate an equal increase in the minimum price for an acceptable lot, a principle which Bloomsbury have established successfully since.

The last decade has seen the dispersal of two great American collections, the Doheny Library by Christie's and Bradley Martin's by Sotheby's; both elicited protest but, as war advances technology, so we can recognize, in superior cataloguing, gains as well as losses. Paul Needham at Sotheby's and Felix Oyens at Christie's have shown that the highest standards of incunabular scholarship can pay off in the saleroom. Subject sales -- the Crahan gastronomy, De Belder botany, Jeanson field sports, Blackmer the Levant, Kissner Rome -- have done notably well. Three final milestones are represented by the sale of the Alnwick Bestiary for £2,700,000 (Quaritch, 1991), the Becket fragments (£1,250,000, Maggs, 1985), and, finally, the dispersal of the residue of the collection of John Sparrow, a collector pur sang, in 1993,

If there has been one distressing tendency in the last few years, represented (for example) by the "Garden" sale, it is not a new one, and it was dealt with in masterly fashion by Luther Livingston in a passage following the reflections on the Hoe sale quoted earlier:

But woe to him who buys solely as an investment and feels not within him the bibliophilistic spark. Dust and ashes is like to be his portion. He might better become a book-seller and hang out a sign. The true bibliophile buys only for the pleasure of acquisition and ownership, and without definite thought of sale or profit. Then when death takes him and his treasure-house is thrown open the world will rush in to compete for its contents. If he has collected with judgment and circumspection, and time has ripened and mellowed his treasures, and if they have absorbed some of his love for them, then when all is over and the auctioneer has cried the last bid, the bystanders can say "he made a good profit on his books," even though the sums realized happen to be small.

There are few who read and use ABPC who will not say "amen" to that.

But this is no occasion to ponder the ephemeral. Behind us stands the solid monument of a hundred red cloth volumes. Before us lies a disc containing the past score of these in a small space and vastly more accessible form. And ABPC henceforth will be available on CD-ROM as well as in hard copy.

American Book Prices Current represents the longest continuous and most reliable record of the progress of book prices in the world. With new technology advancing thus, and no sign that the material upon which the record is based is diminishing, we may confidently predict a future at least as long as its past for ABPC. And in that future let us gratefully, as well as confidently, thank the present proprietors for preserving ABPC and now, twenty-five years after that courageous leap in the dark giving it the secure base from which to move into a new century.

Nicolas Barker

December 1994




1Some reflection of this will be found in a memorable passage in A.M.L. Murray's Phillipps Studies (III.19ff)

2See R. Stoddard, "Jacques-Charles Brunet (some Uncollected Authors LVII)," The Book Collector 42 (I993), 341-62, 324-46, and A. Jammes Didotiana (Paris, 1994), pp. 13-30

3N. Barker, Bibliotheca Lindesiana (Roxburghe Club, 2nd Edition, 1978), p. 153.

4N. Barker, Bibliotheca Lindesiana, p. 259-60.

5Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman, Anatomy of an Auction Rare Books at Ruxley Lodge, 1919 (London 1990), pp. 29-58.

6Bibliotheca Lindesiana, p. 260.

7Bibliotheca Lindesiana, p. 238.

8Bibliotheca Lindesiana, p. 260.

9Sybil Pantazzi, "Elliott Stock," The Book Collector 20 (1971), pp. 25-46.

10 Bibliotheca Lindesiana p.237

11 ABPC 50, "The Beginnings of American Book Auction Records During the First Quarter Century," p, XIII.

12ABPC 50 (1945), "Some Famous Auctions & Auctioneers," P. XVII

13ABPC 20 (1913), p. VI.

14Douglas Gordon. "Cortland Bishop and the death struggles of the Anderson Galleries." The Book Collector 34 (1985) pp. 452-60.

15ABPC 49 (1944), p.2