At the Auction (Part 3)

[Read parts 1 and 2]

With our absentee bidding already taken care of, we drove from Alexandria, Virginia to the northern Baltimore suburbs on a lovely Friday afternoon, June 3.  We checked in to the local Comfort Inn, then headed north into the countryside to tiny Sparks, Maryland, to the newly-renovated old stone barn where Crocker Farm Auctions is quartered.  A small crowd was wandering around for the afternoon preview for the next morning’s auction.    Tables were filled with items of pottery and stonewear that would later sell for hundreds each, along with various items of furniture, decoys, knick-knacks, a large safe, etc.  Lots of casual conversation and lifting up of items  for inspection.

We discovered our quarry lying in an unlocked case with glass doors, where we could pick them up and inspect them sion to our heart’s delight, without supervision. No one else seemed interested in books.  The Ulysses and its slipcase appeared to be in perfect shape. Six completed Matisse drawings were included (all the publisher could afford, according to lore), and the preliminary working versions of each drawing were also bound in. Very exciting. Worth $10,000? Certainly. Well, maybe. Although nervous, we avoided dropping the book or otherwise damaging it. (Does the “you broke it, you bought it” rule apply at an auction preview?)

Next we inspected the Lysistrata. Unfortunately the very plain slipcase was damaged,
looking a little worse that we expected from the picture in the auction catalog. The book itself was also protected by a sleeve that looked like an extra decorated book casing (referred to as a “chemise”) that made the slipcase less important than for most LEC volumes. The chemise and book were in beautiful condition, and the pencilled “Picasso” signature at the back reminded us that were handling a very desirable item of art and publishing history.

The six framed Picasso signed etchings were nest to the book. While originally sold only with to LEC subscribers together with the book, the etchings are sold separately from the book, often singly rather than as a set. According the auction catalog, the two books and the prints were owned by the consignor’s uncle who had bought them as an LEC subscriber in the 1930’s, and had not been offered for sale since then.

After a good night’s rest, we returned for the Saturday 10 a.m. auction.  The front parking lot was full so we parked on the grass behind the barn.   The crowd was dressed casually and appeared to be regulars.  We took a seat early to have a good view.

The first 23 lots offered were of minor interest to us: some went to absentee or telephone bidders, and some to bidders present at the auction, usually at or above the auction house’s estimate.  Lot 24 was the illustrated Ulysses/Matisse we coveted. Telephone and absentee
bidding drove the price up in $500 increments. We were still in the race! Then a $10,500 bid ended our hopes, and the bidding continued to rise until sale to a winning $13,000 telephone bidder.

Next up was the illustrated Lysistrata, with bids rising in $250 increments.  The bidding started nearing our $3750 maximum. Then bidding ended, and the auctioneer announced that absentee bidder #717 had won with a winning bid of $3250. Was that us? Or had we messed up the Internet bidding process somehow?  All of the auction house employees seemed occupied with following the ongoing bidding on other items; there was no one to immediately available to ask.

We stuck around for the bidding on the six Lysistrata/Picasso prints, which yielded the highest winning bid of the day for a sales price of $20,000.  While the bidding continued on the rest of the 400 lots, we headed down the road to Baltimore to donate five boxes of unwanted books to The Bookthing ( . Bidding was still going when we returned around noon.

A representative of the auction house confirmed to us that yes, we were the high bidder on Lysistrata. We paid by personal check (with 15% “buyer’s premium” added to the bid price vs. 20% if paid by credit card.) No ID requested; no questions asked except for our name. Everything seemed very informal. We grabbed our book out of the unlocked case where it remained from Friday. (The Ulysses which had lain next to it had already been removed, so we were not tempted to take it instead “by mistake”.)  We took our purchase to the car, and returned for our share of a catered lunch that Wegman’s had delivered appeared when we were in Baltimore.

A good day. Mission accomplished.

[Our purchase is not available for sale through Book Bank, but will remain the personal
property of the individual bidder.  The book can be seen at

At the Auction (Part 2)

[Read Part I first.]

We occasionally do an online search for auctions within driving distance of
Alexandria, VA that include books for sale. One recent search by Book Bank’s former owner (who we will include in our editorial “we”) uncovered some desirable books to be auctioned in rural Maryland. The house (Crocker Farm Auctions of Sparks, MD) is a prominent seller of pottery and stonewear, whose website features a recent sale of $138,000 for one item. Crocker Farm had decided to branch out into other antiques and collectibles. Its initial general auction was scheduled for June 4, 2011, with a few books included – primarily, the very LEC titles mentioned in our last blog entry–and the loose Picasso prints from Lysystrata. Perhaps (we reasoned), the dealers and collectors who follow the collectible book market would not be aware of these items
offered for sale in rural Maryland and buried among many other lots offered by an auctioneer not known for books. Anyway, it would be fun to take a trip to at least inspect and hold some valuable books that we wouldn’t see again–without any real hope of ownership.

But now we digress. Six summers ago, we were called to inspect for possible
purchase a large group of 19th century books in an otherwise-empty house that was being readied for sale. The house was hot and stuffy–Virginia in the summer is not pleasant indoors without air conditioning–so we hurriedly chose some books, threw them in a box, paid, and left.

When we later had a chance to go through the box, we found that one book casing
contained a folded map instead of a book. The map itself was an 1827 had-colored state map of Virginia, of which only a few hundred had been produced.. The original owner of our copy had been John Randolph, a significant historical figure. Our Research on the Internet suggested that the map was of great interest to map collectors. Well, to shorten this digression, at the end of 2009 we decided to sell the map through auction. The auction house estimated a value of $2500-3500. The winning bid instead was $20,000 (plus 17% buyer’s premium paid to the auction house.) See for a photo of the map.

Unexpected windfalls can lead to opportunities. Perhaps, instead of simply holding and
inspecting the valuable LEC items being offered at the upcoming auction, we could make one or more bids with the unspent map proceeds windfall? We carefully research the various items on the internet, from current online offerings to records of past auctions. The Ulysses/Matisse volume, if signed only by Matisse, appeared to have a market value of $5,000-$7,000, depending on condition and the circumstances of sale. Crocker Farm Auctions had placed an estimate of several thousands less. When the title was also signed by Joyce–as was the item on auction–we could find no evidence of a copy for sale for less than $28,500. The Lysistrata/Picasso volume appeared to have a market value of $6,000-$7,000. Again, the auction house’s estimate was much lower. Why not bid the auction house’s estimate or a little higher, we thought. After all, any purchase would be an investment, not a gamble! Maybe other potential bidders didn’t do their
homework. Delusions, delusions….

We did not want to get caught up in an emotional bidding war that could completely wipe
out our gain from the map sale. So we entered maximum absentee Internet bids of 10,000 for the Ulysses/Matisse and $3,750 for the Lysistrata/Picasso. (We did not bid for the even pricier signed Picasso prints.) We then attended the auction in person without registering for possible in-person bidding at higher amounts. (To be continued.)

At the Auction (Part 1)

[First of three parts.]

For years Book Bank has purchased books through a local book auction. Due to the
limited size of our book-buying budget, and our modest ambitions, we’ve limited ourselves to bidding on so-called “shelf lots”. These are groupings of 20-100+ books on a related subject that we are sometimes able to buy for $20-50. Not all the books we buy this way are saleable, but we get enough good books this way to make it worthwhile. Occasionally the auction house slips up and leaves a valuable book in a shelf lot, which adds to the fun. The most expensive book we’ve sold in the store was acquired in a large shelf lot of gardening books: a 19th century book of botanical prints that we sold for over $750. But that’s unusual.

Recently one of our staff (formerly store owner) did get interested in an auction that
featured a few much, much more expensive books. This is the tale of that high-end auction.

As background, let us introduce you to the Limited Editions Club (LEC) if you are not
familiar with it. Beginning in the early 1930’s, George Macy began this subscription-only series of slipcased fine letterpress printings of classic titles with original illustrations from prominent artists, generally with the artist’s signature. Each title was limited to 1500 copies each. (A much larger unsigned run of each title, of cheaper manufacture, would later be offered by the affiliated Heritage Press.) Depending on condition, title, identity of the artist, and quality of the design and the art, individual titles now have market values of from $30 to much higher. We usually have one or two dozen LEC titles on sale in our store or online, but we’ve never had sold one more valuable than a copy of The Jungle, signed by Upton Sinclair as well as the artist, for under $200.

There are a few LEC titles from the 1930s that are the dream of any LEC
collector because of value and rarity. James Joyce’s Ulysses from LEC is illustrated with
original art by Henri Matisse and signed by him (1935). Matisse signed all 1500 copies. Joyce also signed, but stopped at 250 copies. (One story is that Joyce was irritated because Matisse illustrated scenes from Homer’s epic Odyssey that had nothing to do with Joyce’s Ulysses.) Many of the 250 copies signed by Joyce are held by institutional owners such as libraries, and few are available on the private market at any time.

Probably the next most desirable LEC title is the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes,
with six original etchings and 40 other illustrations by Pablo Picasso, and signed by him (1934). (Aristophanes was not available for signing.) Of the 1500 book copies that were printed and signed, 150 went to select subscribers who also purchased the six etchings loose, each also signed by Picasso.

Until recently, we had never actually seen a copy of the LEC Ulysses or Aristophanes, or
the loose Picasso prints, though a store customer had claimed to own the Ulysses. (To be