Turkey Talk

by Craig Stark

3 February 2018

A Bookseller's Guide to Charley Harper

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As a bookseller, early on, I recall doing market research on eBay almost daily - and almost daily coming across a seemingly ho-hum looking book titled The Giant Golden Book of Biology. This was an oversized (10 1/4" x 13") Golden Book that introduced young readers to biology. Big deal, right? Well, given that it was consistently selling for $400 to $500 back then, one had to at least consider that something about it was a big deal. At first I did a lot of head scratching, frankly. It wasn't long, however, before I began to notice a name coming up in listing title keywords with at least some regularity - Charles (or Charley) Harper - and not long thereafter noticing that he was both this book's illustrator and a hot commodity indeed, that is, a simple eBay search of closed auctions demonstrated that much of what he touched was bookselling (and art print) gold.

I should also point out that, at the time, just about anything mid-century, books or otherwise, was hot, and Charley Harper was a distinctively mid-century phenomenon, a self-described minimalist who seemed to be unusually fond of turkey vultures:

Harper was also one of the most prolific illustrators (or graphic artists) of his time, producing a huge body of work over some decades, much of this landing in books and magazines. For those of you who have followed BookThink for some years you well know that this is a sort of bookseller's dream: Difficult as it can be at times, if we can find something that is both common and sells for good money, we're on our way to making money consistently. And such was the case with things Charley Harper.

As it is with so much other stuff, however, interest has cooled in the intervening years, but there is enough still out there, much of it common, to more than make it worthwhile to keep your eyes open for Harper material. What follows is a small but by no means exhaustive compilation of books, etc., that are still worth bothering with.

1. Ford Times

Through much of its publication history Ford Times was a digest sized (7" x 5") magazine, 64 pages in length, mailed monthly to Ford patrons free of charge. Though its main purpose was to serve as an advertising vehicle for Ford products, there was much non-commercial content as well, most of it focusing on hitting the road and seeing the USA in your Ford, reminiscent of the General Motors slogan, "See the USA in your Chevrolet." Thus there were numerous articles pertaining to scenic points of interest, many of them illustrated by prominent commercial artists of the time, Charley Harper included. Harper got his feet wet at Ford Times illustrating primarily recipes, but it wasn't long before his talent couldn't be ignored and illustrations for articles soon followed. From a period of 1948 to 1982 Harper produced cover art for several dozen covers and many dozens of articles.

Now, Ford Times had a large circulation, and many copies are still floating around, so it's important to pick your spots. Some things to look for include:

December 1948 Ford Times. Harper's first published illustration. Recipe section.

Cover art. As with most any magazine, cover art is king, and this is true of Harper. There are about 30 Harper FT covers. His style is so distinctive that, with some practice, you should be able to spot them immediately. His first cover is collectible:

Look especially for November issues from 1954 to 1960. Each issue contains 10 Harper bird paintings. Note that there were 3 Harper bird covers in 1955 alone as well.

The November 1960 Ford Times includes a Harper illustrated article written by E.B. White - "American Bird Census."

Generally, values are in the lower $$ range for individual issues, but diligent marketing will perk up outcomes. Always mention Harper in the title line of your listings, condition matters hugely and be patient with these in a fixed-priced setting - and of course include high-quality photos.

2. Ford Treasury of the Outdoors

Published in 1952. Harper's first hardcover appearance. 8 fish paintings. In VG or better condition with dust jacket, $50 and up. Don't let the low prices on fixed price venues dissuade you from being ambitious. In a recent investigation of numerous copies on several venues, not a single bookseller mentioned the presence of these paintings, let alone the significance of Harper's first appearance in book form.

3. Betty Crocker's Dinner for Two Cook Book

1958. Charley Harper illustrations throughout in First Edition state only. Later printings omit them. I recently sold a copy for $70.

4. The Giant Golden Book of Biology

1961. Harper's magnum opus. 100's of Harper illustrations. It's difficult to find this book in VG or better condition, but if the internals are clean and unmarked, it's still a $$$ book - and $300 or $400 is not out of the question if condition is above average.

5. The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature Vol. 7: Creatures Wild and Tame

1963. Harper illustrations accompany "Bambi Finds the Meadow." Felix Salten.

6. Childcraft: The How and Why Library. 1964 (to mid-70's). Primarily Vol. 4: Life Around Us. Best quality illustrations appear in 1964 edition. Likely better if marketed as a complete set with emphasis on Harper and home schooling. $$$.

7. The Animal Kingdom: An Introduction to the Major Groups of Animals

1968. Golden Press. George S. Fichter. Though less common than The Giant Golden Book of Biology, this should produce similar outcomes. Hundreds of Harper illustrations.

8. Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper

1994 Charley Harper retrospective. First Edition cover art shown above. Mid $$.

9. Birds and Words

2008, 2014. Look for Limited Edition only with print. Several variants. $$ to $$$.

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