28 December 2009

Antonia Forest

Current Selling Prices £20 to £80+

Grown-up children’s fiction/ Young Adult
Every dealer knows to look out for early editions of the girls school stories penned by Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and their like, which all have their fanatical collectors, but one of the most sought after writers of teenage fiction for the past two decades or so must be Antonia Forest, who because her books have only very recently been reissued in paperback after years of neglect, are avidly sought after in second hand state, either in bookshops or on the Net. For it would appear that for the most dedicated fan a pristine but charmless paperback reissue of a favourite title has little attraction when compared with a first, however battered and library-stamped the copy. It seems that for a growing band of collectors condition doesn’t matter too much.

Forest has admirers all over the English speaking world among all those who relish intelligent fiction for the teenage market. Moreover, academics have now joined the throng. In 2006 a high-powered symposium was held in Bournemouth—where the author lived from 1938 until her death in 2003—and doubtless papers exploring the many aspects of her oeuvre were delivered by more than one serious–looking cove from a Mid-West Liberal Arts college. One of the organisers behind the symposium was Forest uberfan Sue Sims, who after years of fighting to get her books in the shops again, must have been exultant when a tiny publisher, Girls Gone By Books, began to reissue several of the titles in 2003. Getting Forest back on the library shelves could possibly take a little longer. A request for any book by her is still greeted in my local libraries with a frown of puzzlement.

I myself had never heard of Forest –not so surprising considering my status as a middle-aged bloke—until having bought at auction the play-scripts, war diaries and miscellaneous papers of one Harold Rubinstein, I found among them an autograph album dated 1924 of his daughter, a Miss Patricia Rubinstein. Through Google I discovered that not only did the junior celeb hunter grow up to become a famous children’s writer, but that Enid Blyton she most definitely was not. I also found out that so closely did the author guard her privacy that few, if any, of her devoted readership ever suspect that the name she used was not the one she was born with.

The truth emerged at her death. Rubinstein was, it transpired, born in 1915, the daughter of Russian Jewish and Irish immigrants , and brought up in bourgeois affluence in South Hampstead, where she attended South Hampstead Girl’s School. Here she was a keen sportswoman, while at home her amateur dramatist and verse-writing father, regularly treated her to theatre trips, fostering a strong interest in English history and drama that never left her.
At London University she studied journalism with a view to writing full time. Her first book, Autumn Term ( 1948 ) was published in the hope that its success would enable her to forge a reputation as a serious novelist, but so well was it received that she decided to continue writing for teenagers. In all she published 13 between 1948 and 1982. Four are school stories centred on the Marlow twins and their fellow pupils at the independent Kingscote School, and six are home stories also featuring the Marlows. Forest also wrote historical novels. All the books are well-written and distinctively intelligent in their handling of the teenage psyche. Part of their appeal, one suspects, is that unlike the many public school stories that trade on the vicarious relish of grammar school products like myself for the values of a vanished race of upper or upper middle class toffs, Forest writes about the progeny of a meritocratic, educated middle-class. Her father was, after all, a cultured member of the bourgeoisie and his values seem to have been inherited by his daughter. It is also significant, I think that Forest converted to Catholicism at the onset of her career and for the remainder of her life embraced the conservatism that characterises many converts. When asked to describe herself she replied with passion. ‘Middle-class, narrow-minded, anti-progressive, and PROUD OF IT ‘.

Though Forest’s conservatism is a refreshing antidote to the dysfunctional world of Jacqueline Wilson, it perhaps contributed to her neglect . But perhaps the recent revolt against political correctness and dumbing-down will fuel a come-back. One bookshop, Peakirk Books of Norfolk, is certainly doing its best to spearhead a revival and today it offers an extensive range of Forest books, both new and second-hand, although the high prices it demands for poor copies of first editions reflect the clamour from fans for her scarce books--a phenomenon which Forest herself comments in an interview of 1995. For instance they want $115 for a second impression, ex school copy of Falconer’s Lure but won’t charge you extra for sticky tape to endpapers and rubber stamps ! Similar prices are asked for library copies of other titles. Most of the other dealers offering ex library firsts demand the same sort of money --but one chancer in Australia wants (wait for it ) $770 for an ex-library The Player’s Boy in ‘ hardly read ‘ condition with a ‘ clean dust jacket ‘. Not to be outdone in the rip-off stakes ( what would Miss Forest have thought of these scammers ? ) the aptly named Renegade Books of London are charging a cool $146 for a perfectly ordinary Girls Gone By paperback of Falconer’s Lure, when paperback Forests of any vintage seem to average around $35, with a few costing as little as $1. [R. M. Healey]

Wise words Robin and useful stuff too. I shall add Antonia to a hit list of YA (young adult) writers along with Robert Westall, Monica Edwards, Jill Paton Walsh, K.M. Peyton (who was a pal of AF) Geoffrey Trease, Jane Gardam, Leon Garfield and Ian Serraillier (author of the incredible 'Silver Sword'). I was looking at the YA section in Borders in Santa Cruz, California last month and almost every book was black with hints of silver and red and almost everyone had a vampire bothering hapless high school kids. The section was way bigger than say 2 years ago due almost entirely to Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight books (my Borders pic below.)

I still have reservations about library books, before the web they were of so little value as collectables that they would be tossed in the eco-bin, the only exception being if the text itself was impossible to obtain in any other way. A new crowd has come forward unversed in such aesthetic scruples, and I'm happy to take their money but wish they could see the true awfulness of a 'retired' ex-library book. Sic transit...

23 December 2009

Park Barnitz. Book of Jade 2

I have had two bad experiences with this jinxed book. First I bought a copy of the Durtro limited edition reprint from a shop I had dropped into whilst bookbuying in America, one of those shops where hardly anything is priced. Before the web they let the pencil write the price unless it was obviously valuable in which case price guides and book auction records came out, later on a CD Rom was spun with prices going back to the era of flared loon trousers.

Nowadays the old geezer checks the web on every single book, but (as I later sussed) does it in a way that tends to show only the higher price stuff, a sort of learned incompetence. He then lets you have your book (in this case the Book of Jade, Durtro ed) at about a third less than the lowest price shown and it appears you have a good deal. However he has put in too much information thus narrowing down the available copies, usually to the classier dealers who have also input a lot of info and know how to overcharge. When you get home you realise that the book you paid $150 for a book that could be had for $100. As a dealer if you are to get anything back you would have to price your copy at $90 thus making a quick but painful $60 loss. Caveat Emptor! Basically less information will usually reveal lower prices. Less is more, as the mantra goes. No names, no pack drill but you may find a shop like this by chance while book hunting stateside.

The 1998 Durtro edition is still available at about $100, although a few dealers want $200 or more. The edition was limited to 300, not a small edition for a book whose fanbase, although keen and sophisticated, is necessarily narrow. The other bad experience, less painful on the pocket and more a kind of experiment, was to buy for $15 a Print on Demand copy of Park's great work. Whilst the text is there, the line breaks of the poems are dodgy and the book is generally about as interesting as non alcoholic vodka. They have a catchall apology for their dismal effort at the front:
"We have recreated this book from the original using Optical Character Recognition software to keep the cost of the book as low as possible. Therefore, could you please forgive any spelling mistakes, missing or extraneous characters that may have resulted from smudged or worn pages? "
If you want the book free you can read it online at UCLA and the text looks accurate.

I narrowly missed a less than fine Doxey edition of the book two years back at £150 and I have heard of copies making $300 on Ebay but a realistic price for a decent copy is probably $500. Several other Doxey editions are of value especially the 1897 Yone Noguchi book 'The Voice of the Valley'. It can show up wearing a jacket and commands about $800+. Emma Dawson's collection of fantastic stories 'Itinerant House', a Bleiler title, (also Doxey 1897) is desirable and can make $500 or more. 'Doxey's Guide to San Francisco and the Pleasure Resorts of California' is for sale at $1000+ but the price may be freakish. Lastly I found a photo of Park Barnitz. My theory is that unlike say, Rimbaud or Dowson, his decadence may have been conceptual rather than actual - he does not exactly look like the guy from party central...

21 December 2009

A Study in Scarlet 1887 - "...flung like a bombshell into the field of detective fiction."

“There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the 
colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, 
and expose every inch of it.” (Holmes / Doyle)

A. Conan Doyle.A STUDY IN SCARLET. (BEETON'S CHRISTMAS ANNUAL.) Ward, Lock & Co., (1887)

Current Prices $160,000+ / £100,000 +

The first appearance of Sherlock Holmes; the first printing of the first Sherlock Holmes story. "That lurid paper-back of Christmas 1887 is today one of the rarest books of modern times--a keystone sought by discriminating collectors in every part of the world--flung like a bombshell into the field of detective fiction" (Vincent Starrett.) The most valuable mystery and not utterly impossible to find. It is not as rare,say, as an 1865 'Alice' which was withdrawn - it could be bought at news kiosks and railway stations in the magical Christmas of 1887. I thought I would revisit it with all the hoo-ha about the new Guy Ritchie Sherlock movie, said to be not unamusing...

It can show up in a bound annual and occasionally you see stout volumes of the annual and your heart leaps for a moment - but they are always from other years. If you see 1887 on the spine move fast - in case, as Javier Marias, puts it 'the swifter glove of another hunter might appear precisely at that moment and snatch it from you.' One turned up for a pittance on the Portobello road about 1980 - it was bound with other magazines of the period. I missed it by about 20 minutes. The biggest sleeper. The dealer who bought it told the seller the true value what he had found; the unfortunate guy is said to have gone off his rocker. Possibly mythical, but it is bad form to boast about books especially to the seller-he might have other stuff.

Plot? It plunges us straight into the dark world of an unsolved murder in Victorian London, which has links to the American West and the Mormons. 

The Mormon stuff is said to be poorly researched. Watson is seen as a soldier-hero as well as a doctor, and not as a bumbling side-kick to Holmes, who is shown here as a decidedly odd and pompous man, less of an eagle eyed polymath than he becomes in later stories.

VALUE? In 2007 a high end LA dealer had a 'superior' copy at a not unthinkable $250,000. Another similar high end dealer of yore, the late lamented El Dieff had a copy in his 1971 catalogue at $2500. His, however, had 'facsimile wrappers' -- that is a 'sophisticated copy.' Highest auction record was at Sotheby's London in 2004 is $130,000 + 'the juice' taking it to $153,600 and this was for a copy described as 'somewhat creased, worn, and stained, tear, with small loss, to front wrapper and first ad leaf, spine much frayed with substantial loss, but still quite fresh and entirely unrestored.' Unrestored is good - and it can always be put in a handsome 'clam -shell' box. The 1888 first book edition has a 'point' on it - you want the word 'younger' spelled correctly in the preface (paragraph 2, line 3 not youuger which counter intuitively is the second state.) It can go for $40,000 + (that erroneous 'u' takes off about $10,000 and more)-- 2 copies bound in 'modern morocco' (one Bayntun, one Zaehnsdorf) have made circa $20 K in the last 5 years, a copy in a Zaehnsdorf binding (the same?) without original wraps has been on sale this year at a slightly dreamlike $85K. (That was 2007 and it may have sold or been knocked out, a similar copy in a more modern binding is on sale now at £17,500 also without the wraps.)

One dealer, with the 1888 first book edition, claims the colour front wrap is 'exceedingly rare as copies were intended to be rebound without covers at time of purchase' and there may be some veracity in that. Another, or possibly the same, 'sophisticated' El Dieff copy purchased from the Marquis of Donegall in 1975 showed up in mid 2007 and made $156000 (£100K or thereabouts`) it had 'skilful repairs to the margins of a few of the preliminary advertisements and to the frontispiece. Original colour-printed pictorial wrappers; much restored with bits of the upper and lower wrappers and all of the spine (rebacked) supplied in good facsimile.'The book also shows up in bound omnibuses of Christmas annuals usually sans wraps, a copy bound with 4 other Christmas special issues in contemporary half morocco, spine gilt (lettered "Christmas Annuals"), without original wrappers and advertisements, made £18,500 in May 2008. For a really serious earner you need the lurid wraps, or at least parts of them.

OUTLOOK? Are new Sherlock collectors being born? One hopes so. I can see no decline in demand, possibly the many Sherlockian societies like The Friends of Dr. Watson or The Franco- Midland Hardware Company are not filling up with members from the Ipod generation and supply might eventually overtake demand, but not for 1887 or 1888 Studies in Scarlet. Possession of the book speaks of a collector's status and taste and devotion there will, hopefully, always be those who wish to make that statement.

[A rejig from April 2007]

14 December 2009

Park Barnitz. Book of Jade 1

Anonymous (David Park Barnitz.) THE BOOK OF JADE. Doxey's, At the Sign of the Lark (William Doxey), New York (1901)

Current Selling Prices
$350-$600 /£200-£400

I was first alerted to this book by a young solicitor (Karl Potts)-- a collector of the exotic, the erotic, the decadent, the distasteful and the kitsch. He was especially keen on 90s American 'purple poetry' Francis Saltus, George Sterling ('Wine of Wizardry') and Park Barnitz. David Park Barnitz (1878 – 1901) was an American poet, known solely for his 1901 volume 'The Book of Jade', a classic of decadent poetry. It was published by San Francisco bookseller William Doxey, publisher of the humourist Gelett Burgess, as well as many obscure, macabre and forgotten writers. Book of Jade was actually published in New York after his California publishing enterprise, called “At the Sign of the Lark”, had gone bankrupt. By February 1901, Doxey’s new venture was bankrupt again, but not before he had published the Barnitz, probably his finest achievement. The young Barnitz insisted on anonymity, possibly because his father was a clergyman and certainly due to its druggy, death obsessed, oblivionist and decadent content.

He is America's own Rimbaud and in the line of Dowson (not quite in the same league as either) a sort of Marc Almond to Dowson's Bowie. He died at the age of 23 having graduated from Harvard and returned to Des Moines where he haunted the public library. At Harvard his class mates included Wallace Stevens who went on to great poetic (and financial) glory. One of his teachers was Henry James's brother William James, author of the classic 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' (1902.) James pronounced him brilliant and Park became the youngest person ever admitted to the American Oriental Society. The East was an important influence. He has been compared to Count Stenbock and Beddoes. James Thomson's (B.V.) The City of Dreadful Night was a palpable influence. Barnitz was to some extent resurrected by the attention of H.P. Lovecraft ("…and who could have written that nasty, cynical Book of Jade?" he asked in a letter to Maurice Moe), Clark Aston Smith and Donald Wandrei and later by David Tibet and the scholar Mark Valentine who published a splendid new edition under the Durtro imprint in 1998.

The poems are shot through with opium and decadence, almost certainly theoretic:
“O poppy-buds, that in the golden air
Wave heavy hanging censers of delight,
Give me an anodyne for my despair; … ”

- in late 19th century Des Moines it was probably hard to score opium, it's hard enough to get a beer there even now. Difficult to think of a less decadent place on the planet, even Tunbridge Wells holds more promise of dissipation and excess. I doubt whether absinthe was procurable there but it occurs, as a token, in these wonderful lines:
'Kalliste your Persian ghazal cease to sing: the sun is low
And the sacred hour of absinthe is now very very nigh.'
That beats 'the sun has gone down over the yardarm.' Occasionally the poet displays a great lyric gift but there is much in the book that was written pour epater les bourgeoisie or at least to spite his religious father. His lines on the Madonna are worth quoting:
“Anguish and Mourning are as gold to her;
She weareth Pain upon her as a gem,
And on her head Grief like a diadem; … ”
The problem with full on decadence is you are working from a smallish palette and it is hard not to repeat lines, themes and phrases- the above lines, for example, are reworked again in another context. A slightly edited 'tag cloud' extracted from GoogleBooks for 'Book of Jade- goes like this:
corpse absinthe anguish art Ashtoreth beauty behold beloved beneath the sky body bore Brahma buried censer changeless Cometh a day crown dark dead corpse DEAD DIALOGUE dead things Death delight doth dream earth endless eternal eyes fades fain fair flesh forever forevermore frankincense glory gold golden the worms heaven weary Holy Pestilence houris kisses life's light lily garden lips loathed moon by night mournful myrrh naught neath NOCTURNE o'er opium ordure pale pall pallid Patchouli perfume perish Persia poppies roses rotten sadness scented sepulchre sleep slumber solemn sorrow soul spirit stars strange sunken tired tireth tomb unto vanity wanly wearieth weary wine worms lie...

VALUE? Several Doxey books are highly collectable. ...to be continued with some harsh words for the Print on Demand version of the book and a picture of the young decadent...

12 December 2009

The People's Princess

I had thought this phrase was made up by Alastair Campbell for the famous Blair soundbite on the day Diana died but I just pulled this 1984 book out of a box and lo!- here is the original People's Princess...Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck (1833- 1897). She was not quite as good-looking as Diana (indeed she was also known as 'Fat Mary') but like Diana she had a knack for popularity. She was also one of the first Royals to patronise a wide range of charities. She is the current Queen's great grandmother. Elizabeth II seems to have thrown off the Hanoverian look...

The book goes for about £15 as a hardback nice in wrapper, with one online chancer looking for $100. It was published by Kensal Press,London in paperback and hardback. I am told royal books sometimes make more than they are worth on Ebay...

10 December 2009

Book Thieves 1

(From Robin Healey.) I’ve just come across Allison Hoover Bartlett’s recent study of bibliomania, or rather kleptomania, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much . I say kleptomania, because the main character in this series of pen portraits is John Gilkey, who unlike some of the other misfits Bartlett writes about, isn’t so much obsessed with books as beautiful objects or repositories of wisdom, but sees them more as meal tickets to a better life. Gilkey stole $100,000 worth of rare volumes using stolen credit card numbers to pay for luxury items. Earlier on in his career as a credit card thief he had acquired pizzas and foreign currency in the same way.

Two other figures in her books can more properly be classed as true bibliomaniacs, since one ( a Spanish monk ) was insane enough to justify his murder of ten collectors with the chilling apophthegm ‘ Every man must die, but good books must be conserved ‘, while the obsession of a professor in Nebraska led him to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books.

Reading Bartlett I was reminded of the rebarbative Farhad Hakimzadeh (mugshot left) , not so much the Bookseller of Kabul but more the Book Destroyer of Knightsbridge. He it was who expertly removed pages out of scholarly works on the Middle East mainly to make up
defective copies in his own splendid collection –a crime for which he received two years in jail. He is now free and facing a hefty bill from the BL. It was Germaine Greer, sworn enemy of book thieves and book breakers, who enlightened me on the methods of such as Hakimzadeh. They, she was reliably informed, simply insert a fragment of Stanley knife blade under a nail and run their finger along the book’s inner spine. The leaves they remove are then hidden among their own papers.

Hakimzadeh was arrested a full two years after his crimes were committed, but how many others who despoil public collections have escaped detection ---their vandalism undiscovered ? The purloining of single leaves is easy enough to do in UK research libraries, mainly because the checking on exit is inadequate and also because white paper and other documents are allowed into the research areas. At the HRHRC in Austin only yellow paper is permitted and researchers are also obliged to deposit all their own documents in a locker before entering the research area. Hence thefts are exceptionally rare. Why UK libraries don’t follow suit is beyond me. Dimness, complacency, shortage of resources. Take your pick.

But there some beacons of light. At Manchester’s John Rylands Library and the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, before a collection is brought to a researcher an archivist will have listed exactly what items are contained in a seemingly ‘ loose ‘ collection of documents .And when that collection is returned the archivist compares what ought to be there with what is returned. And woe betide anyone who removes the most modest of documents from a file. They know where you live !

And if single leaves can disappear from printed books where at least rudimentary surveillance exists, how easy can it be for the ingenious and brazen thief to escape detection in the average antiquarian bookshop ? How is it that so few booksellers can apparently afford to install a magic beam or even a modest closed circuit camera system ? These would pay for themselves over a short period and presumably bring down the cost of insurance—presuming booksellers bother to get cover. In response most booksellers contend that stringent security measures undermine the pleasant relationships they need to retain with their customers—and thieves, of course, take advantage of this.

However, it’s good to know that some thieves are caught in flagrante. I like that reaction by the late Peter Jolliffe of Ulysses Bookshop, who when he caught a regular customer red handed shouted at him ‘Stop stealing my books !’. Upon which that thief burst into tears, fled the premises and was never seen again in that particular shop. On another occasion the unworldly bookseller only discovered that his copies of Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Golding’s Lord of the Flies ( worth a total of £4,000) had been stolen when he checked the shelf where he had last seen the books. The problem seems to be that certain clothing is ideal for hiding books in, and that books and newspapers are good places too. How easy it is to conceal a copy of A Quinzaine for this Yule** in a folded Daily Telegraph , Times or Guardian? It seems to me that booksellers could learn a lot from the HRHRC and its Yellow Paper Principle. All customers should remove overcoats ( Bob Cohen, who stole regularly from the Birmingham and Midland Institute, was a book-in-overcoat specialist ) when they enter the shop and request that if they are carrying books, newspapers and suchlike, that they leave these behind too. After all, bags are invariably barred from basements. Are these simple precautions beyond most booksellers ? Would most customers be offender by such requests? I don’t think so.

Thanks Robin. Sleeping in a cot in a kitchen with 90 tons of books? That's nothing! I have seen such severe bibliomania that the person could no longer reach his own kitchen for books and had to subsist on takeouts. Talking of stealing plates from libraries I was reminded of the scene in Polanski's 'Chinatown' where the Jack Nicholson character steals a page from a book in a public library covering the noise with a cough. It's Chinatown!

I attended an official auction of a book thief's library thefts about 10 years ago in Suffolk and bought a few modest lots. He seemed to have stolen from libraries in the Northampton area and was currently banged up. The trouble was that this 'tealeaf' (sometimes 'booster') had trimmed and treated all the books to remove ex library evidence and they were hence unsightly, also he had poorish taste in literature. It seems that you don't get great minds going in to this field of crime. Curiously it was the last time I saw Charles Traylen. He must have been in his 90s and was wheeled in to view this sorry lot. I remember him laughing at the stuff. Oddly enough this was the man who practically invented the modern cult for collecting plate books...

** Ezra Pound's second book (1908) which would probably now retail at $20,000 especially the Pollock and Co., edition.

05 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue 3

George F. Sims had just returned from the Bay Area, at the time of this catalogue, with a haul of American books which are scattered throughout the catalogue. Sims was probably best with collection buying, as a scout he was obviously proficient but lacked the guile of, say, Martin Stone or Adam of Hunstanton. In 1977 he published a thriller set in a dangerous part of San Francisco "Hunter's Point". I
could never get on with it, possibly because it was not a bibliomystery.

He brought back a lot of Conrad Aiken - not a great investment but not a loss-maker - also some signed limited Updikes now quite prized, some rather expensive loss making Ambrose Bierce, some decent Hart Crane, Caresse Crosby, Frost (including a presentation copy to Elizabeth Bowen) late Hemingway, Henry Miller, Robert Lowell, Thomas Merton, Willa Cather etc. He was also fond of first foreign language editions of heavyweight British and American writers, possibly less collected these days due to persistent dumbing down. He was also keen on proofs, well ahead of the game (they became hot in the 1980s). Sadly proofs in general seem to be less desirable in 2009 and are banned altogether at Amazon. Here goes with a final selection starting with the kind of proof that has held its value:
George Orwell. COMING UP FOR AIR.1948. Author's corrected proofs with many corrections in Orwell's hand also another unknown and Roger Senhouse. £85 / £1020 / £4000

Henry Miller. TROPIQUE DU CANCER. Paris 1945. Fine condition, copy no 1. Sims states that only 'a few copies were printed before the edition was aborted' a statement which the net does not bear out, also HM seems to have gone distinctly 'soft'. £85 / £1020 / £650

John Updike. BATH AFTER SAILING. 1968. One of 125 signed. Fine. £15 / £180 / £300

Ezra Pound. PROVENCA…(Boston, 1910) Apparently a fine copy in a used vg first state d/w. £85 / £1020 / £600

John Galsworthy (John Sinjohn) A MAN OF DEVON. Even then Galsworthy was in decline but the 4 Sinjohn titles were still sexy. They are less so today, but is always good to find them completely overlooked. Short stories with one "The Salvation of Swithin Forsyte" having the first appearance of a Forsyte character. George's was near fine but still represents a troubling loss to our portfolio. £75 / £900 / £400

BILDER LEXICON (SEXUALWISSENCHAFT) A weighty German sex encyclopaedia finely bound in original publisher's pigskin. Like all decent booksellers GFS had a proportion of erotica. If nothing else it almost always sells fast. Unfortunately German books have mostly fared badly due to every bookshop in Germany putting all their stock on the web and generally driving prices down, sometimes disastrously. £85 / £1020 / £450

Sylvia Plath (left). A WINTER SHIP. Tragara Press, 1960. GFS had much Tragara in the catalogue but none as good as this, Plath's first publication. For £30 he had a proof with corrections in her hand 'indicating that her name should be removed from the title page.' There were a few other proof pages but it was not clear whether this was complete, so to be sure one would have to buy (£20) the next item - a fine complete proof with her name on the title page. It was omitted from the published version. So £50 / £600 / £4000 (conceivably more...)

R.L. Stevenson. VERSES. Privately printed 1912. Presented by the publisher Luther Livingstone to RLS's bibliographer. Posthumous limited edition (100 copies). The kind of book that is now very hard to sell for serious money. BAD BUY! £80 / £960 / £250

Now is the time to do the math. If we had got every book we had ordered we would have spent £1207.50 (call it £1200 and George might have given 10% on top of that.). If we sold the whole lot in a sale next week with some doing better than others and some doing worse we would very likely get £33, 460. With auctions there are expenses so take off 10% and say another 10% for storage and the depressant effect of the auctioneers 20% to sellers and we get £27000, so the books have increased in value by 22.5 times which keeps pace with stocks and shares and represents 9% annual compound interest which is just short of what Madoff was offering (but with him you would have lost the lot!)

If you take out the bad buys (almost half the outlay but with £24000 coming back) the return is a stellar 42 times. In retrospect manuscript material was a good buy and should stay so but there are not many other clear lessons to be drawn from this exercise and to quote Scott Fitzgerald (himself a good investment) '...so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'

04 December 2009

Bruges-La-Morte: Georges Rodenbach 1892 / 1903.

'Bruges was desperately depressing at this time...that was the reason Hugh liked it so much...a mysterious equation established itself between his own spirit and that of the place. In the eternal fitness of things a dead town furnished the corresponding analogy to that of a dead wife. The bitterness of his desolation demanded an environment that harmonised with its poignancy. ..his longing was for an infinite silence...'

by Georges Raymond Constantin Rodenbach.
Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1903. / Flammarion, Paris 1892 (Bruges-la-Morte: Roman.)

Current Selling Prices

$450-$1200 /£300-£750

Having caught up with the excellent comedy thriller 'In Bruges' starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes etc., I thought I would revisit Rodenbach's classic of decadent literature. It seems likely that the writer and director Martin McDonagh or at least the fine cinematographer knew of the work, as some shots echo the images from the 1930 edition with colour plates by Levy Dhurmer. Rodenbach created an image of the Flemish city - haunted, melancholy, adrift in time - that endures today. When it appeared first in 1892, the novel was quickly recognised as one of the greatest achievements of the decadent movement -Huysmans and Mallarme, among others, championed it. It became a best seller that has been reprinted many times. It even became fashionable to visit Bruges and feel its melancholy vibes.

As Terry Hale says in his intro to the 1993 Atlas Press re-issue of the 1903 edition, Rodenbach - as a consciously Symbolist writer conveys 'a mystical sense of a deeper reality:- ' ...that sense of the secret meaning of things is portrayed as invading every corner of the brooding city with its belfries and its beguinages, its sombre canals and its old, silent dwellings...'

When I started this book list I vowed not to give away too much hard won knowledge about 'sleepers' but this book is so interesting and so resolutely unfindable that -- what the hell. It's the UK ed that can't be found, the French is not impossible in fact I have just bought one. I have heard of 2 copies of the Swan Sonnenschein edition in the last decade. I think Hale has one that was used as the text for the 1993 re-issue and another decadent collector lucked out and found one at an internet book site for a pittance. An attractive illustrated edition appeared in 1930 with 18 colour plates by Levy Dhurmer. Levy Dhurmer is responsible for the 1890s portrait of GR (above.) There is a good article about the book called 'Bruges of Sighs' by Alan Hollinghurst at The Guardian site occasioned by the new English translation that appeared in 2005. Hollinghurst, also a highly rated novelist, who introduces the new Dedalus translation notes that '...the opera Die tote Stadt (premiered in 1920) is based indirectly on Bruges-la-Morte...and is now the form in which the novel is most widely known. Its immediate source was Le Mirage, the four-act theatrical version of Bruges-la-Morte which Rodenbach prepared at the end of his life, but never saw staged.' The opera was written by the 23 year old Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

VALUE? Although rare there must be a ceiling on the value of the 1903 British first. Punters are not plentiful and possibly not holding a lot of folding money. The top price for a limpid example might be £600 with the French going for about the same in Euros for a copy in original wraps with no foxing or obvious signs of wear. Right now in December 2009 a Signed presentation from the author to Jean Lorrain sits on the web at £900 (howver it lacks the frontispiece which is almost fatal.) The 1930 illustrated edition has an auction record of $100 from the late 1980s, so say $600. The illustration of the bridge above is from that edition, the original is illustrated with moody photos. The serious money with Rodenbach is to be had for Les Vierges - Les Tombeaux (Samuel Bing, Paris,1895) a 2 vol livre d'artiste with with 4 original lithographs by Hungarian painter Joseph Rippl-Ronai ('the Lost Nabi') in the first volume, and 3 woodcuts by his friend the Scottish painter James Pitcairn-Knowles in the second volume. Hard to find for less than €4500. STOP PRESS. In 2009 I sold reasonable but not fine copies of the Swan Sonnenschein edition and the first French at £325 each. Need replacements.

Below is the remarkable grave of Rodenbach. Along with Edith Piaf, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Black Prince he is buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris. His grave is much admired and visited, especially by Goths and latter day decadents. As can be seen he seems to be pushing open the lid of his sepulchre ...

TRIVIA The movie seems to break a record for the amount of swearing. The DVD has an amusing one minute collage of every damned expletive. It's somewhat politically incorrect and certainly Belgist with lines like "There's two things Belgium is famous for; chocolate and child abuse, and we all know that they invented chocolate to get at the kids." Farrell at one point attacks and downs an obnoxious American diner who complains about his smoking in a restaurant "That's for John Lennon you fucking yankee..." It's a long way from Rodenbach's doomed romance but the same feeling of melancholy comes through, especially in a scene with the Dubliners singing "On Raglan Road" over scenes of brutal mayhem. One wonders if the movie has encouraged tourism to the 'dead' city, just as the novel did.

03 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue 2

A further word on George F. Sims. He should not be confused with George R. Sims (1847 - 1922) English journalist, poet, dramatist, novelist, social reformer, bon vivant and criminologist. George R is still mildly collectable with a couple of Bleiler titles under his belt. George F is also collectable and may even be a 'penny shares' investment himself. You could probably pick up his entire oeuvre for about £400 (about 20 books and pamphlets) including his first effort 'The Swallow Lovers' - a collection of poems privately printed at his father's expense on the occasion of his 18th birthday. Signed presentation copies should be fairly uncommon, as he did not believe in signing books (probably saw too many as a dealer) and had a small label for pasting in copies of his own books sent to him for signing: 'Mr George Sims regrets that his signature spoils book.' The label depicts a branch and a noose.

The book label hints at a slightly difficult type of person confirmed to some extent by his obituary in 'The Independent' : 'He did not suffer fools gladly: indeed it has been said of him that he refused to suffer them at all.' Not suffering fools gladly tends to be obit-speak for an insufferable rageaholic yet GFS appears to have had many admirers and could be generous to other dealers and collectors. It was not so much fools as bores that he could not abide. I remember a completist collector who used to be seen round the book fairs and could bore for Britain (and America) on his chosen subject. He told me that he thought Sims was very rude- he had cornered him on some minor issue point and had launched into a lengthy disquisition when he noticed that Sims had wandered off to the other side of the room while he was still talking. A wise and audacious move, not available to the tethered stall holder. James Joyce once said 'I never met a bore' - but he had probably never been to a provincial book fair.

I only have one Sims catalogue with me and I know there were many better than this, but even chucking in a few duff buys the selected books are looking like a sound investment. To outperform the stock market you need a return of 20 times original investment from 1971 and to show a compounded annual 10% return you need to get about 35 times original investment over the 37/ 38 years. Even Madoff was only offering this. Let's start with a cracker:

Vladimir Nabokov. LOLITA. First ed, Paris 1955. 'Original wrappers, fine.' £25 / £300/ £3000 (possibly more if still fine.)

John Le Carre. THE NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER. Typescript /manuscript with many changes in Le Carre's hand and additional passages including 'two attempts at a different ending, both being deleted.' £65 / £800 / £6000
Hard to value this. In 1990 at Sotheby's Horowitz paid £1800 for Le Carre's The Good Soldier, with corrected typescripts, comprising 16 revised versions, & page proofs; 1990. Over 400 pp, 4to.' This was possibly 'The Secret Pilgrim' and was also likely to have been an espionage novel which is better than 'Naive and Sentimental' - JLC's attempt at a non-spy novel. Still it's hard to imagine the Sims MS would make less than £6000 and could conceivably make many times that.

Charles Morgan. SPARKENBROKE. (1936) One of 200 signed. £15 / £180/ £40. Bad buy! Morgan is hard to sell and copies are thick on the ground. An old customer once explained the demise of Morgan (actually an interesting writer) 'no-one has the time to read him any more.'

George Moore. PERONNIK THE FOOL. (1932) One of 525 Signed copies. Fine in slip-case. £20 / £240 / £60. Bad buy! George Moore despite being Irish and a close friend of Nancy Cunard has become slow to shift, especially these large run limited eds.

Lord Alfred Douglas. SIGNED HOLOGRAPH LETTER TO C. S. MILLARD. A deeply unpleasant 4 page letter basically threatening the openly gay Millard with the police ( 'I have had a long discussion with Inspector Macantire about you') and calling his ideas 'lunatic'. Talking about Oscar's friend Robert Ross's 'unspeakable filthiness and vileness' and saying of his former lover " ...I still pray for OW hoping that there is a bare chance that he may have escaped going to hell...' With envelope with the Douglas seal. £25 / £300 / £650 [that's him left looking uncannily like Jude Law]

George Darley. THE LABOURS OF IDLENESS. (1826) Used but vg. Sims was fond of this now highly rated poet (aka 'Guy Penseval') and was comfortable cataloguing older books. There are some great Dickens rarities in here but useless for our purposes as they are marked [SOLD] -a depressing but honest practice that you see less of these days (that is if you still get book catalogues.) £65 / £780 / £1000

WOOLF, Virginia. BOOK OF CHEQUE-STUBS. (1930) Includes 2 cancelled signed cheques made out to husband Leonard. Sims has fun with this speculating on what VW meant by some of her stub entries and predicts they will puzzle literary detectives--one simply says 'Panto' and she spent £9 on a writing desk and £2.17 shillings at Fortnums. £10 / £120 / £1200 (surely more)
In the hands of one of the many Bloomsbury fanatics one could now imagine a $10,000 price tag but in 1971 Virginia was in the doldrums. Huge price surges (and declines) are all a matter off shifting tastes and predicting them needs the literary equivalent of a Warren Buffet! [VW's desk below--was this the 9 quidder?]

Hilaire Belloc. A COLLECTION OF POLITICAL POEMS. ( Oswestry 1924) A fantastically rare Belloc item printed for private distribution on handmade paper and inscribed to Lord Howard de Walden. George's price is equally fantastic, a stonking £175, equivalent to £2050 in today's terms. Bad buy! It is possible he had a punter in mind. I was a young shaver then but I don't recall Belloc being that hot. The most any Belloc has ever made in auction is another privately printed rarity from 1931 'The Praise of Wine. An Heroic Poem by H. Belloc to Duff Cooper.' Inscribed to Andre Simon it made £1000 in 2005 at Sotheby's. Some highish prices were also recorded back in 1990 at the Bradley Martin sale, but surely the most you could get for this 1924 pamphlet would be £1200. Have put it at £900 to be cautious. £175 / £2050 / £900

Will conclude in the next posting and add up figures to see what kind of return our fantasy investor might have got....

02 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue

I have a catalogue of the great bookseller G. F. Sims with me on the road. It is from 1971 and could give an insight on books as an investment. If you imagined that you had bought a dozen or so books from this catalogue and were now selling them nearly 40 years later, what kind of return would you be getting on your initial outlay? Bear in mind that we have the benefit of hindsight and also that even if one had got on the phone at 8.00 on the morning of the catalogue's first day the books may not have been available.

A word about George Sims. He was probably one of the greatest booksellers the world has ever known. This isn't like being one of the greatest architects or racing drivers, it's a fairly small and mostly undistinguished field. He certainly wrote great bibliomysteries (green Penguins--easily obtained.) Even Evelyn Waugh thought they were good. In my opinion he is up there with Dunning. As a bookseller he realised that, in his field (mainly modern firsts) most of the really good books were actually in the libraries or estates of writers and he went after them.  As a writer himself and using charm and dexterity he got into the collections of the Powys family, Eric Gill, Richard Aldington, A.C. Benson, Julian Symons and thus his brother A.J.A. Symons's collection and thus Baron Corvo. He is probably responsible for triggering rampant Corvomania in the early 1960s - not quite Beatlemania but a force to reckon with...

His catalogues are well written, amusing and incisive with mindblowing material and fantastic rarities. I am not sure if his prices were reasonable or expensive. Most look cheap now - wbich might not be said of some other catalogues of  that time--e.g. Dr Notmann's Covent Garden Bookshop where prices of  recent material still seem toppish.  Economics sites on the web seem to indicate that, across the board, prices have gone up by roughly 12  times since 1971 (according to Resale Price Index,but it's more if you relate it to wages)-- so I shall put three prices: The Sims price, what it represented in purchasing power then (ie 12 X) and the putative, conservative value now.  I have put in a few books that have not gone up -
out of interest and to make the picture more realistic.

Aubrey Beardsley. HOLOGRAPH LETTER TO OCTAVE UZANNE. 1 i/2 pages. £25 / £300 / £2000

Rupert Brooke. EARLY SIGNED PHOTOGRAPH. From Roger Senhouse collection with his notes on rear and in 'fine state.' £85 / £1020/ £2500 (probably more)

Truman Capote. A CHRISTMAS MEMORY. Signed Limited (600) 1956. 'Very fine in slip-case.'  £15 / £180/ £400

L.F. Celine. ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT.  5 pages from a late work heavily revised. £35 / £420/ £2000

G.K. Chesterton. LONDON (1914) with photos by Alvin Langdon Coburn . Fine copy 'completely unopened.' £7.50 / £90 / £500 (it's the photobook effect.)

Cyril Connolly. ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT OF INTRODUCTIOn TO BILL BRANDT'S 'SHADOW OF LIGHT'. 10 pages, 'heavily revised.' £25 / £300 / £900

Aleister Crowley. ACELDAMA (By a Gentleman of the University of Cambridge) 1898. One of 88 copies. Japanese vellum slightly marked but nice £40 / £480 / £1600
Sims was an early proponent of the Beast as a collectible proposition…

De La Mare. THE LISTENERS. 1912. £15 / £180 / £60. An ordinary copy with the Senhouse bookplate and our first bad investment. Sims gives it his best shot however , he writes : 'Thomas Hardy is said to have read this delightful book on his death-bed.' This may be from his own reading or, more likely, old sales patter handed down by forgotten booksellers.

To be continued with a few more winners (inc an Orwell hand corrected proof for £85, scarce Plath, a very nasty 'Bosie' letter to Millard and an astronomically priced Belloc rarity + some George Moore's and Charles Morgan's that have fared very badly…

Many thanks to bookseller and publisher Callum James for the above Sims catalogue collage...over at his site Front Free Endpaper he keeps the Corvo flame burning bright.