It's not the Venom, it's the Bite

Here is a terrific view into a Boston area auction from Tom of Pazzo Books.


October 9th Auction notes – It’s not the Venom, it’s the Bite
There’s a book auction that we frequent perhaps 10 times a year – typically we go to the uncatalogued sales to pick up lots of material that we don’t have easy access to, usually antiquarian (or at least old). Occasionally though we go to a catalog sale and try our hand at picking up some higher end books. The catalog sales attract an entirely different group of folks – at least half collectors – and they also get quite a number of telephone and faxed bids (which results in many items starting over my max price). This is a reasonably major auction house – the prices are included in American Book Prices Current, so the sale prices do impact prices realized at other auctions as well as at retail.

Unlike uncatalogued sales where one shows up early and evaluates a massive amount of material in a few hours, most prep on catalog sales is done in the weeks leading up to the sale. We’re rank amateurs at both the auction and the antiquarian book trade, but we systematically go through the catalog identifying items that we believe are salable or interesting stock and put cap prices on them. If we systematically ignore this information during the auction, at least it’s there. We use ABE, American Book Prices Current and various bibliographies and other reference materials to come up with our prices. Often, even with that, it’s a bit of a seat of the pants endeavor.

As usual, half the items that we’d targeted looked less than exciting in person and half the items we’d ignored looked great – that’s when you have to proceed with an inspired mix of knowledge, gut feelings and stupidity. Luckily we excel at at least two of those.

So here’s a quick run down of what transpired:

We picked up a nice first English edition of an important book on herpetology – the author claimed that snake venom was harmless and the deadliness of the bite was the transferal of the snake’s anger into its victim. It touched off a firestorm in the snake world in 1669. We paid more than we wanted but slightly less than we were willing to pay – a typical result.


A nice 1749 2 volume illustrated 4to of Paradise lost.

A beat up but lovely 1725 Works of Josephus with folding plates and maps.

A great bunch of Victorian Erotica (I have this idea that the only unfilled niche in puritan Boston is Erotica).

A number of random items that ‘fell’ to us that may or may not have been good ideas.

Items of interest:

A pair of 1599 Bibles (both pirated versions, from later, one around 1639) went for $1300 – more than double the high estimate.

Kay Neilsen items went well (though a Brother’s Grimm went over estimate – $2400 – and an East of the Sun went under at $2000). Rackham sold well also, including a Peter Pan Portfolio in elephant folio for $3200. I love golden age of illustration stuff so I follow it even if I can’t afford it.

A number of items went to collectors for more than they would have had to pay on ABE which is certainly of interest to those of us wondering what the internet is REALLY doing to prices.

A lovely second edition in folio, rebacked, of Johnson’s Dictionary went for $3600 which seemed like a lot at the time but was, in retrospect, probably a pretty good deal.

A first edition of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan, estimated at $1000-$1500 (which we’d begrudgingly decided to spend $1200 on if possible) went for $4600. I’d had this feeling that the political climate around the world would bring Hobbes back, and this may be an early indication. This happens a lot – we spend all this time hemming and hawing about whether it’s reasonable to spend $800 or $900 on something and it goes for $3500. On items you’ve accidentally fallen in love with, it really knocks the wind out of you.

A California rarity, Le Conte’s Joural of Ramblings Through the High Sierras of California, went well over estimate at $7500.

A first of Walt Whitman’s Franklin Evans; or the Inebriate, a temperance novel, went for $2200. It was published in 1842, 13 years before Leaves of Grass.

Large numbers of lots of singles and pairs of firsts by John Mcphee and Eudora Welty went very well – much more interest in these than I expected.

Overall it was an interesting auction – we usually only attend catalog sales like these, where there is a broad selection of good material without any specialized trove that brings in the collectors who we can’t bid with. The dichotomy between auction prices and the internet is interesting and much of it is counter intuitive, so I’d urge anyone interested to subscribe to a local auctioneers catalog and check out some previews, even if you’re not interested in bidding. If you take some notes, you can learn a lot from the prices realized when it comes in the mail, and it’s always a gas to look at books you can’t afford.