30 January 2009

Walter Benjamin

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (15 July 1892—27 September 1940) German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, philosopher, aesthetic and cultural critic, flaneur, luftmensch, dabbler in Qabbalistic mysteries, eater of hashish, modernist, Ur post modernist, Francophile, psycho-geographer, translator of Proust and Baudelaire, victim of the Nazis and general European brainbox, egghead, polymath, hero, lover and genius. He is enjoying a fruitful afterlife on the net and in bookshops. His 'Arcades Project' book is a very large unfinished collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, concerned with the iron-and-glass covered "arcades" (known in French as Passages). It has much on Baudelaire, Balzac,Poe, Saint-Simon, Hugo, Fourier, Marx and Engels, Gautier - also commerce, fashion, photograpy, the flaneur, prostitution and Haussmannization. A great work of scholarship and speculation - for dipping into rather than reading for hours on end, in my experience. He left this manuscript with Georges Bataille at the Bibliotheque Nationale when he fled Paris in 1940. He died in slightly mysterious circumstances, possibly suicide, on the Spanish border later that year. It is thought that he felt (with some justification) that the perfidious Spanish douaniers were about to hand him over to the Gestapo.

One passage interested me as I was looking at my paperback copy this morning -a piece about the general dealer Fremin:

'' " We have no speciality" - this what the well known dealer in secondhand good, Frémin, "the man with the head of gray," had written on the signboard advertising his wares in the Place des Abbesses. Here, in antique bric-a-brac, reemerges the the old physiognomy of trade that, in the first decades of the previous century, began to be supplanted by the rule of the specialité. The "superior scrap- yard" was called Au Philosophe by its proprietor. What a demonstration and demolition of stoicism! On his placard were the words: "Maidens do not dally under the leaves!" And: "Purchase nothing by moonlight!"'
That is all we get about this oddball trader Fremin, apart from Google Books citing this passage the web knows him not. Possibly there is more info on him buried in the Bibliotheque Nationale, where Benjamin researched the work. The lives of dealers generally go unrecorded apart from listings in directories and occasional mentions in newspaper, diaries and memoirs. Benjamin's father was a dealer in antiques in Berlin (at one time rich) and may have talked of Fremin. Pic of Palace des Abbesses below--now a very trendy area of Paris. As a generalist (albeit within the speciality of books) I salute him across the years. I used to see a notorious general dealer, possibly Irish, around at Phillips 2 when it was at Bayswater (occasionally accompanying Bob Geldof, then an antique dealer and known in the trade as 'dirty Bob' on account of his unkempt look). It was said that he would deal in absolutely anything and once bought 5000 tins of catfood as well as 500 cat books in the flat of a deceased catlady.

Collecting Benjamin? 'The Arcades Project' as a fine US first in hardback from 1999 can be had for $50 or less. Benjamin' s 1928 doctoral thesis 'Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels' (Origin of German Tragedy) published by Rowohlt can go for $1000 and a lot more in d/w. One dealer has his second publication from 1923 'Charles Baudelaire/Tableaux Parisiens', a rare 12 page book, said to be beautifully produced, at a gamey $6000, although it is 'as new.' A very nice find. He will, I hope, continue to be collected, read and savoured until Armageddon and beyond.

24 January 2009

Colin Wilson. The Outsider, 1956

Colin Wilson. THE OUTSIDER. Gollancz, London 1956.

Current Selling Prices
$200+/ £125+

The key work of the Angry Young Men, a now slightly forgotten fifties movement akin to the Beats and preceding Hippies and Punks. The book is portentously subtitled 'An Enquiry into the Nature of the Sickness of Mankind in the Mid-Twentieth Century.' Colin Wilson, 'the Angries' best known advocate, is said to have slept rough on Hampstead Heath and written the book (age 24) in public libraries in a time of Existentialism, black polo necks, frothy coffee etc., He had been forced to quit school and go to work at 16, although his aim was to become "Einstein's successor." After a stint in a wool factory, he found a job as a laboratory assistant, but he was still in despair and decided to kill himself. On the verge of swallowing hydrocyanic acid, he had an insight: there were two Colin Wilsons, one an idiotic, self-pitying teenager and the other a thinking man, his real self. The idiot, he realized, would kill them both. "In that moment," he wrote, "I glimpsed the marvellous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons." The peak moment, as detailed by William James. This vision has never left him and can be seen throughout his work - many of his later works dwell on the occult. Eckhart Tolle had a very similar moment and went on to sales in the tens of millions.

We had a copy in 2000 described thus:
'8vo. Signed presentation copy to Stephen Spender:-’For Stephen, whose work was one of the main influences on forming the sensibility that produced this book, although it cannot be responsible for the mis-spellings and mis-quotations. With affection...’ A remarkable association copy of the author’s chef d’oeuvre. Top edge sl dusty, sp sl cocked else near fine in vg or better d/w, sl soiled and a little creased and frayed at top edges. £400.'
The book is now on the web at $6750 (£4800) in a nicer jacket--something of a 'dream on' price that may be achieved by, say, 2030. What I and subsequent cataloguers failed to play up was the association of one generational figurehead to another, the torch being handed on--rather as if Johnny Rotten had signed his seminal work 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' to Donovan or possibly Wilde had inscribed 'Dorian Gray' to Walter Pater.

I console myself that my £400 re-invested in good books in 2000 and working on a 50% annual mark up (ie selling for £600 in 2001, reinvesting and selling for £900 in 2002 and so on) would now yield £10000. On this basis the buyer asking £4800 will, even if he sells the book in 2012 make a loss of £15000. Clive of Bohemia wrote a book on this kind of re-investment, the problem is finding (and being able to sell) the right books every time.

Another copy presented to no one in particular is much more overpriced at £2500, probably by a factor of 10, however it comes with 'provenance' something useful to have when re-selling on Ebay. Signed copies can be at £200 or less--even to recognisable names.

The UK first is basically a £100 book and twice that for limpid copies. The American first can make about $80 -which is the price a guy wants for one described thus: '...yellowed endpapers with tape ghosts. Otherwise, NOT price clipped, NOT BOMC, no underlinings or plates. About as close to fine as you can get for a 50-year-old book...' An interesting sales pitch making a virtue of things that the book is not, and clinching the deal with the deluded 'good for its age' ploy. Collectors in my experience make no allowance for age, especially a mere 50 years; age is hardly a factor until you go back to Victorian books (which can still show up 'as new.')

OUTLOOK? Wilson may possibly undergo a revival. He is now rather neglected--his works don't turn up in '1001 books you must read before death' and similar lists. He is not listed in price guides. He is still saleable but not really known to the current under 40s unless they are into the occult. He also wrote exceptional thrillers with Crowleyesque villains and even Science fiction and fantasy of a Lovecraftian / chthonic bent all of which has its collectors. One of his thrillers has a serial killer who leaves quotations from Blake on his victims--a Blake scholar solves the case. There is even a fanzine/ bulletin for his admirers. Meanwhile 'The Outsider' has stood still at the same price for a decade. Sell or hold but don't buy unless well cheap and in great condition.

17 January 2009

Grossly Over Priced Web Operators / Rant du Jour

The overpricing of some books on internet malls is commonplace and almost to be expected. The initial reaction to those who complain is 'get over it...' However when overpricing is grossly high and when it is allied to a poor or catchall book description (or none at all) then you can enjoy some righteous indignation.

My father, who flew a bomber in WW2, used to utter a bit of old RAF slang when confronted with annoying bastards--he called them Gopwos - it stood for Grossly Over Promoted Warrant Officer -a sort of self important little man quite common in the services, possibly even a Widmerpool (but that's another story.) I have appropriated this term to describe very high chargers on the net -'Grossly Over Priced Web Operators.'

For example, recently I found a 20 page modern pamphlet called 'Fundamentals of Fiddle Teaching' by one Barbara Chipper (published Essex 1981). Someone has priced the book at £1247.90 ($1,838.28). It doesn't appear to be a mistake as they have many similar books at vertiginous prices. Until I put my copy up it is the only one on the net--this tends to leaves the seller full reign for their imagination and it is surprising that they stopped at a mere £1247. The clincher is the catchall description used by the seller for this and tens of thousands of their books:-

"No major defects: clean, complete, not falling apart; some light wear. A perfectly good reading or reference copy."
Not falling apart! --at this price one would expect Nigel Kennedy's own pristine copy with two 500 Euro notes laid in and a long letter to him from Yehudi Menuhin loosely inserted! It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which someone might pay this price--possibly if If Barbara Chipper was a preudonym used by Sylvia Plath when she wrote violin teaching manuals or possibly Jean Rhys (aka Barbara Chipper) taught the violin in old age or if Warren Buffet or George Soros or the Google twins had been taught by Ms Chipper and wanted a memento to cherish or maybe someone needed the book in a multi million dollar lawsuit to prove a point or a major rock star demanded a copy in his dressing room as part of his contract...actually there are many reasons but the odds of the book selling are, say, 10,000 to one. How to price my copy I am not sure, at £100 it still looks barmy and I may be accused of being a 'Gopwo.' Of interest in the book is a piece about the effects of taking Oxprenolol for stage fright--Ms Chipper advises against it.

The image above of the insouciant young woman standing on a bookpile, about to be arrested, comes from the Dutch blog
Occam's Razor. Many thanks. Occam's is possibly a neo-dadaist hangout --putting some Dutch words beneath the image through Babel it translated thus:-
ah, who sweet little girl that within a negligible number of year zo' n harry pot-delicate heart also without wand, however, break can and - for the fratsen of the boeboeks, there we it occur, and such as above the voordeur the gegrift stands ' everyone leest' , and as long as everyone reads that, is we glad, glad and joy-full. our actions do not go unnoticed. we do not work in ijle. not today, and also yesterday not!
Fairly typical Babel gobbledy gook or Stanley Unwin goes Dutch!

14 January 2009

Is there anyone here who knows anything about books?

The above is from Helen E. Hopkinson's 'The Ladies God Bless 'Em!' (Dutton NY 1950) value probably less than twenty bucks. H.E.H. was a wonderful New Yorker cartoonist portraying privileged female life on The East Coast. The UK equivalent is probably Pont or Anton (although Anton has a crueller streak.) Many of Ms Hopkinson's cartoons involve a large lady, often in furs, asking infuriating question in shops (mostly about wine, hats, shoes or books.) At the box office of a theatre she earnestly inquires 'Just how funny is Milton Berle?' Like New Yorker cartoons today they raise a smile rather than a belly laugh. A glimpse into a vanished world.

12 January 2009

Joseph Heller. Catch-22. 1961.

Joseph Heller. CATCH-22. Simon & Schuster, NY 1961.

Current Selling Prices
$2000+/ £1500+

Yossarian has to be one of the greatest characters since Oblomov etc.. The book is on Anthony Burgess's list of 99 best modern novels, a more reliable list than Waterstone's or Richard and Judy. There is an issue point on the jacket, you want a price of $5.95 and definitely no blurbs on the back. Blurbs are useful for spotting reprint d/ws (e.g 'Dead Cert' by Dick Francis) but are not infallible, sometimes the book is sent out in proof and when praise is forthcoming blurbs are printed on the first state jacket (e.g. Spy Who Came in From the Cold.') Trivia-- book was originally Catch 18 but Leon Uris's Mila 18 came out and title had to be changed, J.H. based the plot on the Iliad with Achilles as the inspiration for Yossarian.

VALUE? Not especially scarce but fine/ fine copies seem to command close to $3000 and sometimes more for almost faultless copies. Not rare signed as Heller did many signings for later books, early 60s presentations are less common. The U.K first ed (1962) in its attractive green jacket used to be buyable for a few hundred quid but a respectable dealer (not one of the usual deranged overpricers) wants $4000 for a nice but not stunning copy. It would now be hard to find a limpid example for less than a £1000. There is a point on the green jacket --the first issue carries on the lower panel an excerpt from the book which was soon to be replaced by American reviews.

OUTLOOK. Book has risen in value over the last 18 months. It may now have levelled off and may dip slightly. A remake of the movie might help. Books whose titles have entered the language are generally a good bet. Imnsho one to hold.

09 January 2009

Tales of the Uncollected...4

{a couple of years ago]...he began looking at Wants List on the net. This led to a notebook filled with scribblings on which books people around the world wanted. The opposite of sleepers, these are not necessarily rare books, but are useful. Pulling out the notebook he reads out a random selection of the entries.
'Here, for example, is Vic Hurley, Jungle Patrol, 1938. It's the story of the Philippine Constabulary. Twenty-five people want it. £100. Van de Elskin, Foto Jazz, 1959. It's just pictures of blokes playing jazz in cellars with groovy European girls looking on by the Dutch guy who did Love on the Left Bank. It's Juliette Greco, black polo-necks, etcetera. Goes for about $700 and 20 people want it. Jet Planes of the Third Reich, 1982. Fat book. Twenty-five want that. Susan Brookman, Ladies Man, Bantam. Many of these trashy romance novels go for piles of cash. Gerald Kersh, Jews Without Jehova. That was suppressed, I think. Julian Cope, Krautrock Sampler. All about Kraftwerk. A hundred quidder in paperback.
Here's a genuinely rare item. La Poupee by Hans Bellmer. There is a legend about that particular book. Apparently, there was a copy of it in a window of a shop in New York City for a whole year. A mate of mine went in and asked how much it was, to which the owner sardonically replied, "Fifty bucks," as if to say "F**k off, you can't afford it." So my friend said, "I'll have it." He went away with it under his arm and sold it for 20 grand.'
So far the name GA Marlowe and his remarkable novel I am Your Brother hasn't been mentioned. Having come across this book in Mclaren Ross's Memoirs of the Fourties, I had tracked down a copy in Cambridge University LIbrary and was actively looking for one myself. Fat chance. For obvious reasons, this weird mystery story written in a bizarre cinematic style had attracted a cult following and was near impossible to find at less than £300. Marlowe's shady background and mysterious disappearance added to the appeal. Burwood had written about Marlowe on his Bookride website and he now had goodish news.
'They're starting to gather on the web now. There are about five copies for sale. Marlowe's a bit like that author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre- B Traven. A slightly mysterious figure who disappeared suddenly, never to be seen again. Another who vanished in odd circumstances was the Dadaist Arthur Craven. He had just married the poet Mina Loy when he possibly drowned in South America. He edited a magazine called Maintenant, which is worth a lot of money today.'
But books can disappear too. Some were spirited away, usually burnt or otherwise destroyed by scandalised keepers of the public morals, but sometimes by authors who were ashamed to have written them. I have covered some of these examples in a previous article, but the subject continues to fascinate. Burwood recalls some cases that have caught his imagination.
'Gordon Bottomley- Gordon Bumley, as we call him- was one. He is, or was, a vaguely collected 90s figure and he tried to suppress his first book. Another is George Moore, who tried to destroy all copies of one of his books. Then there was Arthur Bryant, the celebrated popular historian. His Unfinished Victory of c1940, revealed distinct Nazi sympathies, that is to say, that Mr Hitler was not such a bad bloke and we should try to come to some accommodation with him. Well, the climate of opinion changed and Bryant tried to gather up all the remaining copies of his book. Consequently, the book is now scarce and a jacketed copy might fetch as much as £200. Anyway, Bryant's efforts succeeded and he became the most patriotic historian of his day.'

We are sitting in what he calls his internet room, but I detect a tinge of regret in his voice when he talks about the days before the net changed everything. But is it necessarily true? Surely, there are still bargains to be had. He doesn't think so, but he does feel that today rare items are more appreciated by their owners.
'The era of finding treasures for a few pounds is all over, but on the other hand the internet has bought books to the surface. You might actually get the book you want, even though you will have to pay more for it. In the old days you'd find, to take one example, The Gent From Bear Creek for a pound and you'd sell it for two grand. But this would only happen once in a decade. But thanks to the net, some of these elusive items are showing up.
'Because of this, some books are no longer considered rare. A good analogy is this. A friend collects pilgrim's badges. These are little items- usually made of lead- which mediaeval pilgrims picked up for a few pence as a souvenir of their pilgrimage to Walsingham or some other shrine. For centuries they were rare- until the invention of the metal detector. Now, they are comparatively common.
'I compare the internet to the metal detector. Due to changes in technology many rare books are no longer hard to find. Some of course remain determinedly elusive. You won't find copies of Bromo Bombastes every day, but others are more easy to find and the Henry Music anecdote proves that rare items can be brought to the surface thanks mainly to the net.' THE END.

06 January 2009

Damien Hirst. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere...1997

Damien Hirst. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, 1997.

Current Selling Prices
$900+ /£500+

The last copy we sold was signed and we described it thus:
Large 4to. As new in publishers cloth in like dustjacket (taken out of the publishers shrink wrapping merely to check signature was present). Original faux leather boards embossed and gilt decorated. 334pp. Illustrated throughout in colour including 7 pop-ups, gatefolds, die cuts and other special features including ephemera laid in and poster at rear. SIGNED by Hirst; highly collectable in its signed form as Hirst (the Duchamp of our time?) has become unapproachable especially with a big book under your arm.

You really need brand new copies as the parts often fall out or quickly get defective. We sold another copy still in its shrink wrap with a 'signed' label -- some collectors prefer their books untouched and still sealed 'like a virgin' ( e.g. Madonna's Sex always worth more unopened.) The full compliment is 7 gatefolds, 23 die-cuts, 7 pop-ups, ephemera and other special features, plus one folded poster laid in. 'Extravagant' 'innovative' and 'provocative' are words frequently used around this book. I have heard it said that some books have different ephemera...

The Hirst industry started to get slightly silly last year. Below are the contents of a goody bag (aka 'doggie bag') given out at his 2007 party/preview ('Beyond Belief') at the Dorchester to launch his $100,000,000 diamond encrusted skull sculpture. Diamonds are a skull's best friend (tabloid headline.) One delaer wanted £700 for his night's haul, another a risible £375 for the chocolate skull covered in silver sparkle ('one of the few that got away uneaten.') The seller assures us that 'they taste terribly good.' At the Lyon and Turnbull sale of 27/9/08, the first of the sales of recent British art to significantly bomb, a goody bag and book were offered described thus:
Complete 'Goodie Bag' given out by Damien Hirst and White Cube at Hirst's 'Beyond Belief' exhibition. It contains a 'For the Love of God' T-Shirt, a Smythson customised leather skull note book, a CD of The Hours, a white chocolate and glitter skull sweet and five pairs of HoloSpex glasses to view the artist's diamond encrusted work - 'For the Love of God'. Sold with a signed and inscribed copy of Damien Hirst's book, 'The Death of God'.
They failed to reach a reserve of £600. The earlier £100,000,000 sale of Hirst art at Sotheby's also in September is now being seen as the apex of a market in swift decline, a sort of dead cat bounce deftly directed by Jopling and Hirst. Real artistry there.

OUTLOOK. Hirst is unlikely to suddenly implode, too many people are invested in him and he is still the greatest talent of the Brit Art crowd. Hard to buy a signed one at less than £1000. A copy at £1600 has been on the web now for 3 years. Prices will probably remain good for unmolested examples of the book. Even though the Gordon Burn essay is of a high order it is best to read it elsewhere or with great care. 'Goody bags' are best avoided -many major stars would not have been to a reception this century where there wasn't a goody bag and might require sessions of therapy if the goody bag wasn't good enough, as it were. I haven't heard of significant collectors of the items-- they may well be traded on Ebay?

02 January 2009

A Lion Called Christian...

Anthony "Ace" Bourke and John Rendall. A LION CALLED CHRISTIAN. Collins, London / Doubleday NY 1971.

Current Selling Prices
$200-$600 /£140-£400

Slim book (94 pages) that was resuscitated by the amazing YouTube video of the author's moving reunion with the pet lion in the wilds after a long separation. An example of a book that was suddenly desirable because of a YouTube video. It appears in Bookfinder's list of the 10 most searched for books of 2008.

Back in Swinging London two groovy Aussies straight out of Austin Powers were living in Chelsea and decided to buy a lion cub at Harrods. They gave him the witty name of Christian and took him out to restaurants in the back of their Bentley. He never bit anybody--this was the era of peace and love. After a year, Christian had grown from 35 to 185 pounds and it was suggested by actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna that they take it to Kenya. They had just finished filming “Born Free,” the famous story of Elsa, a real lioness who was reintroduced to the wild. This was based on the Adamson's 1960 best seller (decent jacketed firsts £10). Soon Rendall, Bourke and Christian were all on a plane to Kenya, where they and George Adamson introduced Christian to his natural habitat.

When they knew Christian had a new family and a safe territory, they went back to Europe, but kept in touch with Adamson and made a few return visits to Kenya to see Christian in the wild.

Their first reunion was in early 1972, a year after Bourke and Rendall left Christian with Adamson. It is this event that is shown in the grainy colour film that has become such a sensation on YouTube. It shows the cat approaching the two men, cautiously at first. Then, as recognition begins to dawn, the lion picks up his pace and leaps into the arms of his old mates. We see two young guys in flared jeans and shaggy hair, and a very large lion. When he recognises them he hugs them and tumbles with them. It is very moving with an underlying feeling of possible danger. 6 million have watched it. Two other versions of the video on YouTube have drawn another 6 million hits combined. Inevitably a few people want the book.

VALUE? There are three copies on ABE at £105 (a very unpleasant ex lib reprint) £210 (a 'good' ex-lib - probably bad, an unqualified good usually means bad) and £380 (reasonable copy in chipped d/w). All seem too much for what they are, especially as the book is about to be reprinted and can be ordered at Amazon for March 2009 (pic below) at £6 -fully revised and updated by the authors. Prices tend to collapse on a reprint, e.g. an applied art book currently touted at £2K+ is about to be reprinted at £50. Caveat Emptor. Generally the new revised edition is preferred.

OUTLOOK? Choppy, uncertain and probably murky. A nice signed copy of the original is probably a good investment, as always avoid ex library copies. Check out the short video here.