Pop culture fetches top prices at auction of first editions


November 17, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

At a book sale, not all the drama is between the covers of the books.

Take the sale in October of the library of New York collector Richard Manney. Before the sale at Sotheby's in New York, dealers worried aloud that the recession would take its toll, predicting that the most expensive books would not sell.

As the sale progressed, however, a contingent of dealers, mainly from California and London, began to compete, and some record prices were paid, notably for first editions of the classics of pop culture by such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Bram Stoker.

Two big-ticket items, however, suffered from the fact that they were purchased at auction so recently that no one was willing to pay anything close to what Mr. Manney paid only a few years ago. Freshness is that magic ingredient for any lot at auction. It adds excitement and surprise, and when an item is remembered from a recent sale, it is not as desirable though nothing about it has changed except its provenance and its power to transmit auction fever.

At the landmark Sotheby book sale in 1988 Mr. Manney had bought four 17th century folio editions of Shakespeare's plays, bound in the 19th century in fancy bright red morocco, for a whopping, record $2.1 million.

What worried the trade about the Manney sale was not so much that the collector suffered from auction fever but that the collection had been put together quickly in the last decade and Mr. Manney had paid dealers high prices for science fiction, detective stories, children's literature, horror and fantasy books. The fear was that these price levels would not hold up at auction.

They need not have worried; pop culture carried the day. The high prices paid at book fairs for these Johnny-come-latelies to the antiquarian book world were equaled and surpassed at auction.

The sale brought a tidy $3,905,715 with only three lots failing to sell: the Shakespeare folios; a copy of John Elliot's Indian Bible,the first Bible published in America, in 1661, which Mr. Manney had bought for $220,000 at Christie's in 1986; and a watercolor by Elisha Kent Kane executed in the Arctic in the mid-19th century.

The Manney Collection was the first multimillion-dollar library assembled in the 1980s to come up for auction, and for the occasion Sotheby's published a handsome $50 color illustrated catalog which made such good reading that the book trade called it hype.

When Mr. Manney exhibited his collection at the prestigious Grolier Club in New York last June, the October sale was announced, so the books were well-known to the trade and to collectors.

Louis Weinstein of the Heritage Bookshop in Los Angeles, in partnership with David Brass of E. Joseph, London booksellers, was the biggest buyer, spending about $1 million for almost a quarter of the sale. Mr. Weinstein said he had a client for the most expensive lot, Charles Dickens' autographed manuscript of The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain," for which he paid $308,000, bidding against the reserve, the minimum acceptable. The estimate was $350,000 to $500,000.)

Generally books with auction history did not show appreciation. There were, of course, some exceptions. A copy of the first printing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights presented to John Jay by George Washington brought $231,000 from a phone bidder, exceeding its estimate. It sold at the Christie's sale of the Doheny Library in 1987 for $175,000.

On the other hand, Baltimore dealer Stephen Lilienthal of the 19th Century Bookshop paid $143,000 for the water-stained copies of "Tamerlane and Other Poems," the rare first edition of ++ Edgar Allan Poe's first book, published in Boston in 1827, and one of only a dozen copies known. It had sold in June 1988 at Sotheby's for $198,000 amid much publicity after a Massachusetts man found it in a book barn for $15.

The hottest corner of the book trade was 20th century popular culture: detective stories, children's books, horror and fantasy. A first edition of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" went for $29,700. A whopping $44,000 was paid for a presentation copy of "Dracula" which author Bram Stoker had inscribed on the day of publication, June 2, 1897, to Sir James Deware, the Scottish physicist known for his quest of absolute zero. A first edition of the first collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, estimated $25,000 to $35,000, sold for $53,900, and $23,100 was paid for "A Study in Scarlet," a first edition of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, published in Beeton's Christmas Annual, London 1887. It went to a Holmes collector; the underbidder said he was a collector of Christmas books.

The new breed of collector wants the familiar. A first edition of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," 1900, sold for $25,500. A first edition of "The Adventures of Pinocchio," by Carlo Collodi (pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini), Florence, 1883, made $14,300.

The unbound sheets of the first edition of "The Shunned House," by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, estimated to bring $2,000 to $3,000, sold for $14,300. "The Shadow over Innsmouth," 1936, offered together with two other first editions of the book, all in their original dust jackets, went for $18,700! The estimate had been $4,000 to $6,000. Collecting "modern firsts" is all about pristine dust jackets.

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