24 April 2012


Recently TV schedules have been flooded with Titanicana. It’s the same online and in Waterstones. But Titanic mania is no new phenomenon. For many decades anything directly associated with the ill-fated liner has been collected-- from postcards, letters, autographs, telegrams, menus, brochures plates, serviettes, china , rugs, towels….The loss of the Lusitania in 1915 (1,198 people drowned) has never caught the public imagination in the same way ; nor will (presumably) The Costa Concordia, though as we speak some survivors of the latter are probably putting their own menu cards on Ebay.

Predictably, this centenary year has seen a slew of new books— re-creation, speculation, memoirs, fantasy, even crime. The first book on the disaster-- the memoirs of a crewman who survived-- appeared in 1912, and ever since, the presses have been rolling. By now we probably know all there is to know about who and what was lost. Today, the lists of ‘ famous ‘ passengers tend to focus the half dozen or so multimillionaires aboard, but a far greater figure lost that night is missing from most lists I’ve seen so far. This is W. T. Stead, the pioneering journalist who deserves to be remembered for ever as the man most responsible for exposing child prostitution in Victorian England. I sold a copy of his biography two years ago. Perhaps I should have hung onto it. Much valuable art was doubtless lost too, but the best known example was undoubtably the ‘Great Omar’, the most spectacular jewelled binding of the modern period, which had only been completed the year before by Sangorski and Sutcliffe in London and was on its way to an exhibition in New York City. I don’t know if fish are partial to leather, but I imagine that unless the book was hermetically sealed in a metal case, sea creatures would have got to it pretty quickly. And if the jewels were swallowed as well it’s a ten billion to one chance that they will ever be recovered.

Menus are not usually art works, but they are easy to stow away in the event of a ‘unsinkable’ liner going down. So it comes as no surprise that

Titanic menus turn up occasionally. The most expensive menu ever sold—a single piece of card detailing the final luncheon for First Class passengers, which was slipped into a hold-all by a well-heeled passenger, made a riveting £70,000 in March ( ‘some damp staining, but otherwise in good condition for its age‘ as one dealer might say. The only item likely to be worth a great deal more would be the ship’s log, but unless Captain Smith got it smuggled out in another piece of luggage, there is little chance of this turning up in someone‘s attic. Less appealing, but probably easier to find, is a Titanic launching ticket, which fetched £35,600 at the Bonham’s centenary sale. On ABE you can buy a single piece of ‘stationary’ from the Olympic for $300. In my local saleroom Titanic postcards, photos and telegrams come up rarely, but I never bother to inspect them. I guess they must be at the low end of the market, for they seldom make much money.

Anyone with a genuine interest in the social and marine engineering aspects of the Titanic era in luxury steamships, rather than in low-brow memorabilia, should perhaps opt for White Star Line brochures of the period. The most expensive seem to be those that describe the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic. From California you can purchase for $2,000 a White Star Line brochure of 1912 issued prior to the launch of the two liners . This 24 pages of promotional guff, which included the hubristic buzz word ‘unsinkable‘ to described both vessels, once belonged to the art director of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack Okey. I wonder if the director of Titanic used something like it to research his box office smash.

For $1,500 a much more substantial item, volume 90 of Engineering Magazine (July – December 1910)—910 pages, including drawings, photos and technical details of the architecture, steering gear, boilers, electrics, etc—of the Olympic class liners, can be yours. It’s lot to pay for what is, essentially, a bog standard magazine of mechanics, but we’re talking about the Titanic here. One of the most interesting features described are the lifeboats and the regulations concerning them. As we know, these lifeboats played a pivotal role in the tragic story.

But the biggest bargain on ABE is probably a first edition of The Loss of the SS Titanic by Lawrence Beesley, which is priced at a reasonable $300. Beesley, a survivor from one of the lifeboats, published his gripping first hand account just nine weeks after the disaster. With its 302 ‘ hair-raising’ pages it remains one of the best books of its type. [R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin, topical stuff. I often wonder if these cults will ever end Titanic, Jack the Ripper, James Bond, Baron Corvo, Lawrence of Arabia, Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, Alice etc., As far as I can see only Lawrence (and possibly Churchill) are not going up in value. I am not sure Lord Fellowes new Titanic series helped the cause...See our earlier postings on Titanic collectables for more info, including the strange and rare novel 'Wreck of the Titan' (1898) which predicted the tragedy.

17 April 2012

Warhol, Madrigal's Magic Key, Joyce & Caedmon

Occasionally I spot the book Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish (Doubleday NY 1952) and get mildly excited because it has illustrations by one 'Andrew Warhol' and must represent some of his earliest published work. He was 24 at the time. The book is really only worth about $50 in fine shape, simply because there are a lot about. Much, much rarer is the record that came out at the same time and had Warhol's illustrations from the book on the covers of the 2 albums.

A decent copy sold on Ebay last year for $4550. The record was made by the Wible Language Institute of Allentown, Pa. According to the sellers, their copy was in better shape than the one featured in the Paul Maréchal book Andy Warhol: The Record Covers 1949-1987, Catalogue Raisonne, which also stated that the only known copy existed in The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It is not stated whether they had both albums…

Andy had done 5 covers before this, the first was the cover of a Carlos Chavez album A Program of Mexican Music. The illustrations of Aztec musicians on the cover of the Chavez album were copied by Andy from the Codex Florentinus. Interestingly the illustrations for Madrigal's Magic Key have a similar simple hieroglyphic style to the Codex illustrations.

At nearly $5000 this must make it one of the most valuable 'talking' records. James Joyce recorded a couple of 78 rpm records in the 1920s. The first in Paris 1924 was of him reading from Ulysses - the recording took up one side of a twelve-inch disc and it lasts just over four minutes. It was organised by Sylvia Beach through the Paris branch of the Gramophone Company (which owned the label His Master’s Voice) 30 copies were produced and it is extremely hard to find. Beach kept a couple of records herself, and admitted that she later sold them at a stiff price when she was hard up. Value? Probably several thousands, auction records shows merely this related curiosity from 33 years ago:

Joyce, James, 1882-1941 - Signature, 27 Nov 1924. Diameter about 4 inches. Paper disc designed to fit the centre of a gramophone record presumably for a reading of Ulysses. Issued by Shakespeare & Co. - Sotheby's, Mar 13, 1979, lot 388, £380 ($771.40)
Joyce's second record was made in 1929 at the Orthological Institute in Cambridge under the aegis of C.K. Ogden. The recording of JJ reading from Anna Livia Plurabelle took up two sides of a twelve-inch disc and it lasts eight and a half minutes. It sold for two guineas (£2 2s), a large amount of money at the time. It sells for towards £1000 in good shape with a decent sleeve and is not scarce...there are five online as we speak and it is an auction staple.

Other valuable talk records include LPs from the literary record producer Caedmon from the 1960s and 1970s. Kurt Vonnegut reading from Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle etc., can make £100 or more, Anthony Burgess reading A Clockwork Orange is rare and worth several hundred dollars, William Faulkner reading his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is exchangeable for a C note. Also collectable and of some value are Caedmon recordings by Tolkien, Dahl, Sendak, Bemelmans, Dylan Thomas and odd items like The Borrowers read by Claire Bloom and extracts from Narnia read by Anthony Quayle. It's a rich field and the records can sometimes be found (overlooked and asleep) mixed in with collections of classical and rock albums.

11 April 2012

Working for Oxfam…

Does the antipathy among booksellers for the book- hoovering activities of charity shops, particularly Oxfam, still exist? I ask because when I was a subscriber to the now defunct Book and Magazine Collector I recall an exchange of letters on charity shops that lasted for about three months. The tone of the letters from dealers was noticeably hostile. The strongest complaints always concerned the fiscal advantages enjoyed by charity jobs over those dealers in towns where these shops were in unfair competition with them. Dealers complained that people donated rare books to charity shops instead of selling them to dealers, thereby benefitting both dealer and vendor. Naturally, what was not mentioned was the fact that because most people prefer selling to giving away books, a dealer still had a good chance of making a living, either from buying directly from vendors or by bidding at auction. Nor was it mentioned that the percentage of good books to rubbish received at the online reception depots (called hubs ) was much lower than those encountered by dealers buying at auction. Which meant, of course, that much time and human resources are wasted by Oxfam in sorting and then chucking out the dross which dealers would spend in sorting and pricing genuinely saleable books.

I can speak from experience, having worked for a while as a cataloguer at one of these Oxfam hubs, where I found a few valuable items, including some modern firsts, association copies and early printed music by Mozart and Beethoven, but percentage-wise nothing like the number of treasures that are popularly imagined to turn up at these depots. For every Beano Annual number one ( £4,500 from a shop in St Andrews ) there are 15,000 trashy paperbacks, Worlds Classics and school textbooks.

In their resentment dealers perhaps forget that charities exist to do good—to improve water facilities in Ethiopia or treat glaucoma in India. When a copy of Gerard Ansdell’s legendary photo-journal, A Trip to the to the Highlands of Viti Levu ( 1882 - photo above), which in late 2009 had been handed into the Teignmouth branch of Oxfam , made a record-breaking £37,000 at auction, a spokesman proclaimed that the money would buy 1,500 goats, feed 5,300 families or bring safe water to 41,000 people. It should also be said that the only charity workers who make a living are shop managers and the administrators at HQ. Many volunteers, who are often retired or unemployed , work the same number of hours in these shops and depots that most dealers devote in their own businesses. Moreover, a few are perhaps as clued up as many dealers, but unlike the latter have no chance to make money from their unpaid roles as cataloguers.

This, of course, is not entirely accurate. It is disingenuous to assume that well-informed book sorters in charity shops are not given the occasional chance to benefit from their close contact with the more valuable books donated , especially in the less professionally run charity shops. If a volunteer finds a first of G. S. Marlowe’s I am Your Brother in a dust jacket and asks the shop manager, who hasn’t heard of Marlowe, if he can buy it for £10, the offer is likely to be accepted. The store manager is more likely to have heard of Seamus Heaney, which is why a copy of his incredibly scarce debut volume, Eleven Poems (1965) together with another first by Michael Longley, was selected out by a sorter and made it to the auction house, where the pair fetched £3,500.

I must also say that in the case of Oxfam, these sorters deserve the occasional bargain—without them the pricing would be left to ill-informed amateurs, and the charities concerned would suffer. At my hub I was the only specialist book cataloguer among a team whose own specialist knowledge lay mainly in the field of vintage clothing. My boss, the hub manager, knew nothing of books, rare or otherwise, and was overjoyed, if somewhat sceptical, when I announced that I had found a rarity, which was not often. When I uploaded details of the sheet music I seem to recall putting a price of around £600 on this item, having to my surprise and chagrin already been informed that the treasure was not being considered for auction. So there might be a little truth in the often heard charge that because of its market dominance Oxfam has become ever so slightly blasé about maximising its income generation.

I would love to know how many and how often good and rare books are selected out by hub workers. The online Oxfam pages can provoke bitterness and envy mixed with howls of delight from dealers and collectors alike, but the tales of rare books that escaped the notice of the sorters only to end up in the trash piles will, I suggest, never be told. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Aye, there's the hub. As the b'stard Urquhart used to say "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." I guess if an Oxfam bookshop sets up in your provincial high street right by your second book emporium your days are numbered-in Woodbridge near me 2 bookshops were blown away by charity shops. There is a lot of bad feeling out there, a recent bookshop that closed down sent its books to the landfill 'as a matter of principle' rather than to charity shops-- it's that bitter. However when just one rare photo book can buy 1500 goats and decrease the suffering of forgotten peoples the arguments start to falter..

For me the books in them are not especially cheap and generally uninspiring, I usually stick to DVDs and talking books. They have become receptacles for the books that low key bookshops used to sell- if a book is any good they have usually looked it up on ABE and put the right price on it which is, of course, the wrong price.

03 April 2012

Stephen Fry & The Failiure Press

THE FAILIURE PRESS. Privately Printed, King's Lynn 1973 +

We have, for mostly commercial purposes, recently gone on Twitter as AnyAmountBooks and I find myself occasionally reading tweets from the man with 4 million disciples (we have 80.) What is noticeable is how early the tweeting starts...perhaps like Baroness T he only sleeps 4 hours a night. This reacquaintance with his work has prompted me to revisit a posting from June 2008.

I remember reading about the Failiure Press in Moab is my Washpot and making a note to look out for these elusive ephemeroids. The misspelling btw is deliberate. Recently I found 4 issues, 2 of which had crosswords by the 16 year old Fry, who by the evidence of his clues was already a prodigy and a polymath. Unless he contributed to some school mag at Uppingham this represents his first work in print--what the bibliographers call B1. The second issue has his first crossword and the third issue has the solutions and the second crossword. I have the first issue, fascinating but Fry free, the above two and an odd issue from April 1975. Stephen Fry writes that the magazine went on well after his brief involvement and '...plunged into a weird libertarian frenzy of polemical anti-Semitism, gall and bitterness: the title had ever been a hostage to fortune or self-fulfilling prophecy. In its early days it was light-hearted, occasionally amusing, and always self-consciously intellectual.'

It is certainly a very odd mag full of jokes, parodies, reviews of King's Lynn pubs, fake letters from Evelyn Waugh, Brian Aldiss etc. Baron Corvo is at the heart of it and there are genuine letters from intellectual priests like Brocard Sewell (taking issue with Donald Weeks) and the concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houdedard. There are poems and limericks in the New Model Alphabet, a crazed system reducing the alphabet to 13 letters to represent the 13 persons at the Last Supper - A B G H J K O P R S T and numbers 1 AND 5. Its problem seems to be that unless you are reading something you have just written you are unlikely to be able to decipher it. It is attributed to Viscount Luthor and in the issues I have New Model Alphabet writings probably represents less than 10% of the content. Corvo is 20% +--these were the times when Corvomania swept the cities and the fens. There is much whimsy and esoterica. The editorial in the first issue laments the lack of experimental or adventurous writing in current magazines like OZ and I.T. ('stylistic bankruptcy and bop mediocrity') and declares--
"...We will be as idiosyncratic, as paraliterary, as corvological, as quite other than uniform, and as quintessentially informed as we can and please. As usual, we are quite serious. Schopenhauer said: He who writes for fools will find a large audience; we will not underestimate ours!"
There follows a spoof message from Pope Paul VI at Castelgandolfo granting the readers of the magazine a plenary indulgence at the hour of death. Fry's crosswords were damnably difficult and dadaistic. Try this (7 letters) 'the way someone uneducated smokes a cigar nonchalantly.'

The solution is, of course, ABANDON. It was once considered vulgar or common to smoke a cigar with the band on, as it demonstrated how much you had paid for the cigar, an ungentlemanly thing. Hardened gamers might get to that eventually but how about this? 'The Monroe Doctrine has bonus queen involved.' Solution = SARKI (H.H. Munro was Saki, add an R for Queen, duhhh.) Somewhat easier and with the Fry touch is 'Prep-schoolboys' bedroom has insects at one end - and yet they sleep! (7 letters.) Answer below.

Also elementary is 19 across 'Dial for Art' (DALI). He was very fond of anagrams and especially hard hidden ones-- try this - 'A short established rape: he likes a malenky malchick.' The answer, which doesn't exactly come like clockwork, is PEDERAST. The great Baron Corvo is honoured in this clue- 'the great man himself - with a bar on' (5 letters). An early love of wordplay is demonstrated in this marvellous clue - 'Take a sou from something wonderful and you get something metaphysical (7 letters). Answer below. A great writer that Fry was to play in a major motion picture is evoked in this clue ''The lady of the lake made hers famous, anyone keen on the popular Aestheticist' (2,5,5,3) Answer below.

I noted that this magazine 'The Failiure Press' has at its mast on the first issues 'incorporating Rat's Alley' and also freakishly 'incorporating Rat His Alley.' Presumably these were earlier emanations from the King's Lynn Corvines and echo the lines in The Waste Land -'I think we are in rat's alley, / Where the dead men lost their bones'. Eliot, in his turn, seems to have got this from the name of a particular trench in WW1.
I cannot find my old Failiures anymore, the warehouse has subsumed or buried them and I would love to find Rat's Alley but suspect it might be as elusive as Corvo's The attack on St Winefride's well : or Holywell gone mad [1898] but less valuable.

Answers-- Dormant / Marvell /An Oscar Wilde Fan.