It was Michael Suarez, multi-talented director of the Rare Book School, who first got me thinking about the book trade as an ecosystem. Of course, once you start understanding something in a new way, revelations continue to unfold. I met a dealer at a show several years ago who occupied a most intriguing niche. His first job in the trade was at an auction house and, being a quick study, he came to have a thorough understanding of the auction game. When he went out on his own, he made a career of buying things at one auction and reselling them at other auctions where they were likely to fetch better prices. In other words, the auction room was his market and he was simply taking advantage, in time-honored fashion, of an informational disparity.
I had occasion to think of this fellow recently, when I got a bulk email from Rick Statler at Swann Galleries informing me that there were some interesting whaling logs coming up for auction. I recognized one of the items because I had been the underbidder on it at a country auction earlier in the summer. I dropped out one notch above $4000 because I didn’t think I could sell it for more than $7500. It went for $5520 with the buyer’s premium, too narrow a margin for me, particularly if, for some reason, a dealer wanted it. In that case I’d be selling it for $6000. Swann has it estimated at $8,000 – $12,000. Maybe it’ll go for $10,000, maybe it’ll go for $15,000. Maybe I should be buying things at auction and moving them on to other auctions. But no, that’s not my niche.
Speaking of whales, I’ve been enjoying a splendid book by my old friend Mike Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It’s called, O’ER THE WIDE AND TRACTLESS SEA: Original Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt and it is choc-a-block with over 300 color plates of sailors’ original illustrations from whaling logs, private journals, and other, similar sources. Mike backs up the visuals with an authoritative account of how, why, where, and when whalemen created visual depictions of the hunt. These paintings and drawings – sometimes primitive and crude, sometimes highly accomplished – communicate an entirely different kind of information, a different feel for the history of whaling than mere text.
In between bouts of reading Mike’s book, I put the finishing touches on Maritime List 253, which has a lot of wonderful whaling stuff in it, including some rare prints and important whaling narratives. Of course, these days, everything has to have an image or images accompanying it, and, as I was accomplishing this part of my cataloging, I thought back to the old days, at the beginning of digital imagery. I had a state-of-the-art camera, a Kodak DC 260.
I think it cost about $1000. It was as slow as a sloth and it devoured batteries like a hog. Images were agony, and the results were ugly. When I was teaching at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar the most popular course, by far, was Dan Gregory’s presentation on how to photograph books. Dan had a marvelously engaging style, but he was a complete geek, and most of what he said about cameras, lighting, light boxes, and software flew over our heads. Mine, anyway. Fast forward seven or eight years and the formerly agonizing process has become a cakewalk. Here’s my method…
I hang a piece of white paper from the back of a shelf and lay the book on it sideways. Photograph from above left, crop, rotate,
adjust contrast, and presto! Not exactly professional grade, but adequate – and certainly an improvement over the old look.
Wing and wing
In case you’re interested, the book pictured here is a rare Arctic voyage account:
Snow, W. Parker. Voyage of the Prince Albert in Search of Sir John Franklin: A Narrative of Every Day Life in Arctic Seas. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1851. xvi, 416, (32) pp. Color plates, folding map. The author was in charge of ship’s stores on one of the many vessels engaged in the Franklin search. This is the first edition of one of the rarer books of that literature, written in a lively style and illustrated with color lithographs. Abbey Travel II, 638. Arctic Bib. 16362. An excellent copy of a book that is usually foxed when it can be found at all. Blind stamped and gold decorated cover is bright and intact, with only light edge wear. The color plates and folding color map are fresh and clean. Most unusual in this condition. $2000
And here’s one that was easier to photograph. Somehow the image reminds me of Rockwell Kent. You?
“Captain Barnacle” (Newell, Charles Martin ). Pehe Nu-E, the Tiger Whale of the Pacific. Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1877. 12mo. 112 pp. b/w frontispiece and plate. This is a novel about Mocha Dick the legendary whale of the South Pacific, and an inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In an effort to add allure to the his legendary ferocity, Newell ascribes the sinking of the “Essex” to Mocha Dick. Wright 3955. Forster 324. First edition, with two wonderful plates presaging the dynamic illustrations of Rockwell Kent. Bound in original decorated boards. Very good condition $250