The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

by William M. Klimon

#87, 29 January 2007

Building a Book Collection for Resale

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Nick Basbanes tells a very interesting story in his little how-to book for book collectors, Among the Gently Mad (2002). He relates how Robert C. Bradbury, a management professor at Clark University, building on a personal interest, assembled a unique book collection of the "literature of birding adventures." Not books about birds, mind you, but about the travels and exploits of ornithologists, the professionals and amateurs who have shaped and refined our knowledge of our avian neighbors. Prof. Bradbury basically defined this collecting genre, so the books were cheap. But the reference works were also meager. He had to do the research himself, therefore, in the course of which he assembled a list of 1,400 titles. He acquired about a thousand of those titles with no trouble. Then a decision point arrived. A dealer so admired Prof. Bradbury's unfinished collection that he offered him $35,000 for it. Prof. Bradbury took the offer and sank his entire windfall into a new collection (of miniature books, as it turns out, but that's a story for another time).

I love this story. It sums up perfectly one very appealing approach to collecting, the elements of which are:

  1. Pursue what interests you, especially if your interest is unique or breaks new ground, following what John Carter famously called "new paths in book collecting."

  2. Invest time in researching your area: Read widely, purchase reference books wisely. We're blessed to have the Internet, but there is still a vast majority of important information locked into printed books. Some advanced, high-end collectors talk about acquiring one (or more) reference books for every new book they add to their collections - not necessarily a recommended policy but an index of how seriously serious collectors take their research.

  3. Realize that, if you have the good fortune to hit upon a new path, there is a good chance that supply will be high and prices will be low, at least for many titles - a great encouragement to collectors to explore these new paths.

  4. Recognize that the whole may end up as greater than the sum of the parts. For the collector, each piece fits into the larger collection and illuminates the rest, and you may even make an original contribution to human knowledge, while the collector-as-seller may very well realize a significant return on his or her investment.

I've had a similar experience, albeit on a smaller and far less lucrative scale, of putting together a collection that I eventually sold, the process of which, if not the specifics of the collecting area, might prove useful to others attempting the same thing.

An Accidental Collection

The collection in question was a group of works by and about Catholic missionaries in Alaska, territorial Canada, and the Arctic in general. This was something of an "accidental collection." While looking for items for my other collections and without really trying, with just the occasional, randomly discovered book, I gathered several dozen items in the course of a couple of years. It goes to show you how picking up books and papers for a couple of years, here and there, for $5 or $10 or so, can all of a sudden produce a small though impressive collection.

Being of a scholarly bent, I thought that, if I ever pursued that collection more seriously, I might reach a point where I could do a worthwhile bibliography of the subject. Or, alternatively, I could just sell the whole thing off for a premium.

The Keystone of a Collection

In my experience, a collection only really comes together when the collector has acquired and recognized the "keystone" item. The keystone item is different with every collection. It might be the oldest item in the collecting area, the rarest or the most expensive (although I've rarely found the latter to be the case). It might be an association item or a manuscript piece. But whatever it is, it is definitely an item that draws and holds the collection together, if only in the mind of the collector.

In the case of my Arctic Catholic collection, the keystone item was a series of 15 thin and fragile issues, published from 1963-1970, of a hard-to-find journal called Eskimo: Country, Inhabitants, Catholic Missions. I found them in three separate lots on eBay from three different sellers, one lot of 13 issues and the other two as singletons. I've never seen any other issues offered for sale anywhere. Eskimo was published, beginning in 1944, by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (the O.M.I.s), one of the religious orders entrusted with the Arctic missions in territorial Canada. Eskimo has been described as having a "vast prospective, anthropological, archeological, historical, social and religious [that] makes [it] an important source of information about Inuit culture and different 'northern' issues." For such an important source, though, it is not well represented in institutional collections. Fewer than a half dozen university libraries in the United States have any copies at all, and I note that my collection had several issues missing from the Library of Congress's collection. These rather ephemeral items appealed to me principally, I think, for their rarity. Recognizing that rarity and how the other items "supported" those journals made the collection come alive for me.

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