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The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

by William M. Klimon

#87, 29 January 2007

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.

More Weighty Tomes and Trends

By weight, of course, those journals represented only a small part of the collection. I also found several dozen books, most not particularly rare, but a good number of them signed or with other interesting associations - for example, a copy of Maurice de Baets's The Apostle of Alaska: Life of the Most Reverend Charles John Seghers (English trans., 1943), with the tipped-in calling card of Bishop Joseph R. Crimont, S.J., who served as the Prefect Apostolic (1907-1917) and first Vicar Apostolic (1917-1945) of Alaska.

I began to notice patterns - for example, works on the Jesuit missions in Alaska by the German literature scholar and historian Father Louis L. Renner, S.J., and many, many works, particularly biographies (a genre that particularly appeals to me) on the O.M.I. missions and missionaries in Canada. There were also many books on the nuns and religious sisters of the Arctic missions. It was they who provided most of the teachers and nurses for the northern schools and hospitals. I'm certain I only scratched the surface of books about them. (For the future, I am preparing an entire essay on the "nun bibliophile" phenomenon.)

One important crossover trend I noted was the prevalence of references to early aviation among the Arctic missionaries, the vast distances and formidable territory that they had to cross being the obvious explanation. This was such an important factor in the Arctic missions that one autobiographer used it in the title of his work: Paul Schulte, O.M.I.'s The Flying Priest Over the Arctic: A Story of Everlasting Ice and of Everlasting Love (1st ed., 1940), of which I found many copies including signed ones with promotional photographs laid in. Although I did not pursue it further than the few books that mentioned it, I have a hunch that Arctic missionary aviation could be a big collecting area all by itself!

Selling Out

A couple of years and a few dozen items into this collection, I noticed higher and higher prices for books I had not yet acquired and the collection requiring more and more of my attention. I had done some research for the collection but had not acquired any serious reference works because the bibliographies and encyclopedias on the Arctic are numerous and expensive - too expensive for this accidental collection. And although I had made many lucky and interesting finds, I started to sense that my luck was running out. I think I was one of very few people collecting in this exact area, but I ultimately found myself at the dangerous crossroads of Arctic literature (heavily collected by private collectors) and missiology (rigorously gathered by academic institutions). So, although the collection was far from complete, my solution was to sell out.

After one false start on eBay, I relisted with a more extensively annotated catalog and was fortunate enough to attract a few competitive bidders. I managed to sell the still-immature collection for a modest profit (which I estimate to have been about 20%). I was quite pleased when the buyer turned out to be the dean of a Catholic college at a West Coast university who gave the collection to his school's library, there to be kept together in special collections, though not yet accessioned, for the time being.


Many collectors view the production of a catalog or a bibliography as the capstone of a successful collection, particularly if the collection is going to be sold off. I didn't stick with my Arctic Catholic collection long enough to achieve such a distinguished finale, but I was quite pleased to learn, not long after I sold it, that Louis Renner, the eminent Jesuit scholar mentioned above, had just published a massive, 700+ page encyclopedia of all things relating to the Catholic Church in Alaska: Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska, A Reference Work in the Format of an Encyclopedia (2005).

Fr. Renner's work, given the small profit I made, convinced me that I was very much on the right track in assembling this accidental collection, even though I decided not to continue the hunt. In turn, my experience convinced me that it's worth the attempt to put together a unique collection, especially if the attempt seeks to break new collecting ground and even to turn a profit. Good luck assembling and selling your collection.