2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
The Fine Books 50
$5,616,000. The Birds of America; from Original Drawings By John James Audubon London: Published by the author, 1827-1838 Christie's, December 15 Estimate: $5 to $7 million
Even if you’ve never raised a paddle at a live auction or laid down a six-figure bankroll to buy a book, there’s still a lot to learn from high-end book auctions. That’s why every year Fine Books & Collections tracks down the top auction lots of interest to book collectors. After months of research, our editors and writers have uncovered 237 $100,000 wonders—rare books, maps, and autographs hammered down anywhere in the world for more than $100,000. The complete list is online at www.finebooks50.com. On the following pages, you’ll find the stories behind the top auction sales in our annual Fine Books 50 special report.
The top-fifty list proves that age does not equate to value. Two items, John Lennon’s hand­written lyrics to “All You Need Is Love” (#9) and Marlon Brando’s Godfather script (#45), are less than forty years old. Of course, ancient rarities also fetched high prices, with eleven lots over 500 years old. The oldest item, a manuscript of an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (#8), was written about 1000 a.d.
The Fine Books 50 also shows that size doesn’t matter. Several high-fliers are quite large. John James Audubon’s TheBirds of America (#1) is legendarily massive. The great collector J. K. Lilly put off buying a copy (in the days when they could be had at regular intervals) because it was too big. Bookseller David Randall acquired a copy in a custom-built mahogany case and offered it to Lilly. The collector explained why he had never bought one. “The main reason is that I have no place to put it, except under a billiard table,” he told Randall. “It may not go through the door to the library, but if it does, I’ll take it.” A few days later Lilly cabled, “Send Audubon. Have quarter-inch clearance.” By contrast, the Lennon lyrics and the first map to use the word “America” (#11) are single sheets that would fit neatly in a file folder, and the first appearance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address outside of a newspaper (#46) is a small pamphlet of just sixteen pages.
The other lesson to be learned from this report is that uniqueness matters. More than twenty lots in the Fine Books 50 are one-of-a-kind items or are the only privately owned copies. While most collectors will never own a book that will fetch six figures at auction, everyone can search out first editions with unique inscriptions or find a letter or piece of manuscript from a favorite author. Regardless of monetary value, you’ll always have bragging rights because no one else will have anything quite like it.
P. Scott Brown