Another entry from our distinguished writer from Massachusetts Tom Nealon of Pazzo Books
A signed proof of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is headed for auction in November at Swann. It has a signed dedication to Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s fiancee and is signed to his friend and longtime employee Toby Otto Bruce, as well as being, apparently, the first signed proof of one of his novels ever to surface. Why then, is Swann projecting a price of $75,000 -$125,000?
A signed and inscribed (to his physician) copy of The Sun Also Rises, from the famed Maurice Neville collection, went for $366,400 in 2004. An inscribed first of Three Stories and Ten Poems from the same collection went for $150,000, Old Man and the Sea $140,000 and In Our Time, $280,000. These did have the luxury of being together and from a famed collection, but they were also just ordinary first editions, exciting inscriptions notwithstanding.
Now, auction houses do dearly love items to go over estimate (the above Sun Also Rises was estimated at $80,000 – $120,000) but you’d think they’d at least try to get closer to the mark. Wouldn’t one of the underbidders from the Neville auction like to scoop up this far scarcer item for the bargain price of, say, $300,000? It may just go to show that Hemingway (as we revealed in a previous post) is down on his luck these days, passed over for the red hot William Faulkner.
The other possibility – if it really does sell in that range – is that advance proofs really are going down the tubes. There was a time, not long ago, when any serious collector of modern firsts had to have the proof copy of the book along with the first trade edition. Important dealers like Ken Lopez still often market them together, but it seems like the proof business has been suffering a slow death for years. Part of it, no doubt, is the carpet bomb approach that major publishing houses perform when marketing a new book, but it also seems to speak to a certain lack of conviction or a lost thoroughness in today’s collector. That said, as proofs pile up around the store, it’s hard not to view them with a certain studied disdain – could anything this common, anything treated with such offhandedness by their publisher, be worth collecting?
It’s up in the air, but I’ll continue to quietly sock away the good ones in my boxes of marinating fiction firsts, waiting for the day of their resurgence. Remember, it’s often the initial lack of popularity that causes books to be discarded and end up impossibly scarce down the road.