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Taking Bookselling to the Top

Part IVa: How to Succeed in Bookselling
Without Really Trying

by Craig Stark

#85, 1 January 2007

Earlier parts of this series are Part I, Part II, and Part III

In Part III of this series I explained in some detail how a simple typo - striking an "8" instead of a "2" when entering an eBay auction reserve price - had miraculously netted me an additional $6,000 on a rough proof of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The buyer had no doubt made up his mind not to let the book get away from him, no matter what the price. It was my day in the sun. Also, previous to this sale, I'd sold a Civil War pardon letter signed by President Lincoln for $4,375. With these two items alone I'd made back my initial $5,500 investment and pocketed almost $5,000 in profit. Though I still had a few dozen GBS signed first editions and numerous pieces of GBS ephemera to unload, some of it handwritten letters and postcards, not to mention an album that contained dozens of pasted down Ford Theater playbills and a mysterious, brittle court document from the 1830s, I'd pretty much resigned myself to the fact that the big sales were behind me.

In the ensuing months I sold the best of the Shaw stuff. Several things went for over a thousand, many more for somewhat less. It was all good, however, and it was all gravy. The playbills were a different story. I shelved the album, also the court document and some miscellaneous Lincoln stuff, and essentially put them out of mind. At this point, I'd had no reason to question the assessment of my acquaintance who'd told me that somebody at Christie's had estimated their value (given their pasted-down state) at about $50 each. Worse, even if an enclosed note could be taken as gospel, there were supposedly only two genuine playbills in the album, and the rest were fakes. So, you know, big deal. Given the modest potential payoff, I didn't want to take the time to authenticate them, so there they sat. And sat.

Much later, maybe a year or two later, I completed the construction of a two-room book cottage in the back yard - the house could no longer accommodate my inventory - and the long process of moving everything out there began. During this process, the album inevitably surfaced, and, well, you know how it is when you start going through stuff that you haven't seen recently: It's fresh again, and you bring a fresh pair of eyes to it. I leafed through it again, slowely, paying closer attention this time to the accompanying documentation, some of which consisted of actual auction records with prices paid for several of the playbills. And not insignificant prices at that. Why hadn't that registered before?

I also looked closely at a letter that had been laid into the album. I recalled reading it before - it was a ho-hum thank-you note for a gift of Lincoln memorabilia - and had concluded that it was of little interest. For some reason, however, the signature at the bottom now caught my eye. The first name was virtually illegible - nothing but scrawled, compressed letters - but the last name looked like it could've been ... "Cleveland." The only Clevelands I knew were a company that made golf clubs, which had no relevancy, and (Stephen) Grover Cleveland, none other than the 22nd (and 24th) President of the United States. A Google search instantly netted several images of Cleveland's signature, and indeed all online Grovers bore a striking resemblance to mine.

A handwritten, signed presidential letter seemed somewhat more promising, though I knew that Cleveland wasn't nearly as collectible as Lincoln. Still, I felt that it at least merited making an inquiry, so I emailed Christie's, attaching a photograph of the letter and explaining that it was part of an album of Ford Theater playbills.

The reply came quickly - and the letter wasn't even mentioned. What was mentioned was the album. Apparently, it was something "of interest," and Chris Coover (of Antiques Roadshow fame) asked if he could call me. Well, yes, he could, and during our subsequent conversation, he cited a previous sale of $13,000 for a single, genuine playbill in 1990! The fact that mine were mounted would likely depress values some, but if one or more of them proved to be genuine, well, thousands might be possible.

Thousands? That certainly beat $50 each, and he said would send me some information that would enable me to make a preliminary determination. Apparently there were numerous issue points that needed to be confirmed before the word "genuine" could be attached to anything.

When would I get it?

The next day.

When things are of interest, seemingly, things move fast.

As promised, the next day I received photocopies of two documents, one a ca. 1937 article, "The Ford Theatre Lincoln Assassination Playbills: A Study," by Walter C. Brenner and the other an except from a February 7, 1985 Library of Congress Bulletin titled "Library Catalogs Playbills from Night of Lincoln Assassination." Both explained why there were two different genuine playbills. Here's the LOC version:

"There were two original versions of the playbill printed by Ford's Theatre for the night of April 14, 1865. The printing of the playbills was already in progress in the morning when the news came that the President would view the evening performance. It was decided to mark the occasion by having Laura Keene, the leading lady, sing H.B. Phillips' "Honor to Our Soldiers." The song was to be sung during the intermission between the second and third acts. As it happened, Laura Keene was not ready to appear at the assigned time and never did sing for the President. This having been arranged, Mr. Polkinhorn, the theater printer, halted the production of the playbills in progress and inserted the eight-line stanza of "Honor to Our Soldiers" into the remaining number of programs."

The LOC itself holds only one of these playbills, the second issue, but it's believed to be the holy grail, the one retrieved from Lincoln's own theater box - and it bears a blood stain! In any case, Brenner asserts that, immediately following the assassination, considerable numbers of counterfeit copies of the first issue were produced using the same type used by the printer of the genuine playbills - but, he's careful to point out, not to the printer's knowledge. So closely did the counterfeits resemble the originals, however, that Brenner's study was specifically undertaken to distinguish them.

Here are Brenner's images of the two genuine issues.

Feeling somewhat impatient, I didn't finish either of the articles. Instead I opened Brenner's article to a chart he'd assembled to document differences in issue points between genuine and counterfeit examples - and began my own investigation. The following is a photograph of the very sheet I used to check off each issue point. My marks are visible along the left side. Note also that the columns headed "1" and "2" contain the points for the two genuine playbills; the others columns represent counterfeits.

Starting with the first issue point on the (presumably) first issue playbill, I painstakingly double-checked each point, sometimes triple checked them, and slowly made my way down the page. As I put a confirming mark next to each one, I could feel my heart pound harder and harder in my chest. When I reached the bottom of the list, "Length, top to bottom of type," I was shaking, and the mark I put next to it is noticeably (and understandably) darker. I'd satisfied every last issue point. The playbill was genuine!

I repeated the process with the second playbill, which bore the same issue points as the first, the only exception being that it was 1/16" longer top to bottom. Genuine again. In my excitement I picked up the phone to call Chris but then recalled that I hadn't read the articles in their entirety. It seemed practical to at least do that first in case I'd missed something important, something that might disqualify my playbills.

I read the LOC article first because it was shorter - only 3 pages long. The Brenner article, however, was fully 16 pages long, and by the time I'd gotten to page 14, I was getting impatient because I'd found nothing that called my findings into question. Then, toward the bottom of page 14, I ran headlong into this:

"Tending to verify the claim herein presented that the only authentic playbills and programs for the play, 'Our American Cousin,' for Friday evening, April 14, 1865, are those, or others exactly identical with those, in the Wright Collection now in the Harvard Theatre Collection, is the following important piece of source material from the library of Major William H. Lambert, of Philadelphia, whose unsurpassed collection of Lincoln material was sold at The Anderson Galleries on January 14, 1914, Part 1, after his decease, and which is now regrettably perdu in some library or broken up, and of which we can only present the catalogue entry:

"299. FORD'S THEATRE PLAY-BILLS. The original play-bills issued at the Theatre the morning and evening of the day on which Lincoln was assassinated; variations and facsimiles; data concerning them; an A.L.S. by O.H. Oldroyd; together with some earlier bills of interest mounted on thick cartridge-paper, and bound in a narrow folio volume, half morocco, gilt.

"The scarcest of the bills contained in this volume is the one printed in the afternoon, after it had been definitely ascertained that Lincoln would attend the performance. This is distinguished by having inserted a patriotic verse of eight lines, and by the omission of the list of prices of seats. It is extremely rare, and probably the kind used by Lincoln. The regular bill for the performance, printed in the morning, accompanies it.

"In addition to these two there is another variety with the imprint of Polkinhorn, in which the word 'chairs' is omitted after 'orchestra' in the list of prices of admission, and reading 'Sensational Drama,' instead of 'Sensation Drama,' as in the others. This bill and the other issue without the verse have been declared on authority to have been found in the box after Lincoln was carried out, but it is natural to suppose that the variety with the verse especially printed in his honor would have been handed to the President and his party.

"The other bills in the volume include facsimiles by other printers; the issues of the Polkinhorn bill announcing the attendance of the President; bills for previous performances in the same week; issues from Oct. 19 to 26th, when Junius Brutus Booth [EDITOR'S NOTE: Brother of John Wilkes Booth] appeared in the cast; two bills with Mrs. D. P. Bower's name; and others.

"The whole forms a remarkably interesting collection, embracing every variety of the 'Lincoln bill,' including originals and forgeries."

I distinctly remember gazing at this passage for some time before it finally sank in. My album contained playbills "mounted on thick cartridge-paper, and bound in a narrow folio volume, half morocco, gilt."

My album, in fact, contained every last item mentioned in this passage. I was holding the very Lambert album that had been "missing" since 1914!

I'm certain I didn't even begin to cloak my excitement when I called Chris back, and in fact he was excited himself, so much so that he blurted out $50,000 as a possible auction estimate.

$50,000??? I said.

"Well, you never know. It could go higher."

Tune in again next month for the conclusion.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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