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What You Can Learn from Book Auction Catalogs

Part I: How to Describe Faults

by Craig Stark

#117, 31 March 2008

Here's a frequently asked bookselling question: Are (book) auction catalogs worth anything?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but I'd suggest that, before you put them up for sale, you examine them for their potential to help you learn more about the profession. Some, frankly, aren't of much use, but many of them are rich resources indeed that can teach you, among other things, how to describe faults and book elements, how to determine edition state and how to price books - all critical skills that inexperienced booksellers often come up short on.

It's absolutely true that there's no substitute for experience in bookselling - handling books, buying and selling them, and so on - but there's also no substitute for education deliberately sought and obtained from other booksellers and bookselling references - studying, that is, about the profession independent of experiencing bookselling. Auction catalogs can help this latter cause hugely. In this and three following articles I'm going to use examples from catalogs to illustrate how you can do this without having to bare any ignorance in public forums. In other words, you can get book smart in the privacy of your own home!

First, condition. I'm not going to discuss why it matters - Chris handles this topic very competently in the following article - but once you know how important it is, what then? It's easy enough to recognize faults in a book, but describing them accurately requires both a grasp of terminology and an ability to evaluate the severity of various types of damage - for example, at what point does "light bumping" jump cease to be light?

Take a look at this book, which is exceptionally well illustrated in a recent Swann Galleries auction catalog:

How you would you describe this dust jacket? It might be instructive to give it a shot before looking at the following description:

"278. TOLKIEN, J. R. R. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Frontispiece and 9 other illustrations in black and white by Tolkien. 8vo, original green cloth, titles and pictorial decoration to spine and both boards in blue, cocked, some rubbing with slight surface loss at toot of spine, slight toning to edges; Thror's Map and Wilderland maps on endpapers, top edge stained green but faded; Tolkien-designed pictorial dust jacket, -inch chip at head of spine panel, creeping and widening to an inch at rear panel, 1/4-inch chip at foot, -inch chip at lower right corner of front panel, other short tears, most clean, some with residual chips; owner's inked inscription on front blank and signature on front map.

"London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937 [8,000/12,000]

"FIRST EDITION, FIRST IMPRESSION. FIRST ISSUE DUST JACKET With the ink strikethrough of the "e" in the misspelt "Dodgeson" on rear flap. The Hobbit was first conceived by Tolkien as a story to tell his children in 1926. He began writing the book in the late twenties to alleviate the boredom of correcting school papers. Only 1500 copies of the first edition were printed all of which were sold within a couple of months. Hammond and Anderson, A.3."

Absent the photograph, some of you may not think that this description is as complete as it might be. There's a stain in the upper right hand corner of the front panel that I would want to know about before bidding, and I might also be concerned with the degradation of the vertical fold between the front and spine panels - is it close to separating? - but keep in mind that the photograph is intended to address at least some of the issues that the description doesn't.

Even so, there's enough shared visual and textual information that things can be learned here. Example: Note that three chips are specified with measurements, the smallest being a -inch chip (out of view) at the foot of the spine panel. But also note that a chip in the upper right corner of the front panel, which appears to be about an eighth of an inch across isn't specified but is presumably addressed in the phrase "some with residual chips." This gives an inexperienced bookseller a fairly precise sense of when a chip is large enough to be noted specifically and small enough to be cast in with other chips generally. Very useful, yes?

In general, auction catalogs are packed with these kinds of opportunities to learn from those with vast book experience. In Part II I'll discuss how catalogs can be used to increase your book terminology vocabulary. Meanwhile, if you don't have any catalogs to study yet, there are many now available online. The following links will take you to some of the best:

Biblion Auctions

Bloomsbury Auction

Bonhams

Christie's

Dominic Winter Book Auctions

Dorothy Sloan Rare Books

Dumouchelles

Freeman's

Bellmans Auctioneers and Valuers

PBA Galleries

Sotheby's