Ernest Hilbert Sirius XM Radio February 2016
Dan: Ernest Hilbert is a rare books dealer for Bauman Rare Books here in Philadelphia. He’s also a poet. And he joins us here in the studio. Thanks very much for coming in.
Ernest: Thanks for having me.
Dan: I think a lot of people, they hear about this, but maybe they truly don’t understand this industry. Put it in context, if you’re talking about rare books and the purchasing and the collecting, what do you correlate it best to?
Ernest: Well, the distinction that has to be made is between a book you would buy online for yourself to read, or in a bookstore, and a collectible first edition book which could be $5,000, $50,000, more, $100,000. It’s much more akin to the fine art market, where you will buy a Picasso for instance; you would buy James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a high spot of its kind.
People who buy what we call high spots, collectors, what they would buy are the best known works in each field. So, for instance, if you were collecting art on that level, you would want a Rothko and you would want a Warhol and you would want a Picasso and a Matisse. And, if you’re doing it with books you would want The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, you would want The Origin of Species by Darwin.
And so, when you go into a rare bookstore, it’s more like going into an art gallery. There are fewer total books. The books are carefully described, carefully cared for, and of course the prices reflect their rarity and the desirability of these pieces for the people who collect them.
Dan: And the age of them as well?
Ernest: And the age of them as well. You know, the first major book made with movable type was the Gutenberg Bible. That was in the 1450’s. Historically speaking, some people consider that recent, if you collect antiquities for instance.
Dan: The Gutenberg Bible is considered?
Ernest: From some perspectives.
Ernest: So, in the 1450’s it was the first major book that was produced using movable type. Only about forty-eight copies, not all of them complete, have survived to the present age. You can’t buy one. They’re in permanent collections in museums in libraries.
But, when you look at these books, I mean a lot of it has to do with a very highly specialized code and technique for understanding why they are valuable. To give you a few examples, if you’re interested in The Great Gatsby, and it did not have its dust jacket, you could find one for $2,000 or $3,000. One of them in the original dust jacket sold for $377,000 at Sotheby’s as part of the Gordon Waldorf collection in 2014.
Ernest: It’s a particularly notable dust jacket for a few reasons. The book was published in 1925, and very few pieces of paper survive intact from that era of newspapers unless they were stored and purposely archived. And so, those dust jackets were not cared for. Often, they were literally thrown away. people didn’t think they had any value.
Ernest: That jacket actually influenced the book. Fitzgerald wrote to his famous editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, and said, “Don’t give that dust jacket to anyone else. Save it for me. I’ve written it into the book.” And there’s actually a passage that was inspired by that dust jacket. And also, you have to know what to look for, because the very first issue of that jacket, on the back panel, the “J” in the J. Gatsby’s name was accidentally lower case and so they set about hand-correcting it with rubber stamps or by hand. If you hold it up to the light, you can see the original lower case “j” printed underneath.
Dan: And then, one on top of it.
Ernest: Right. And then, the other one on top of it, yeah, to correct it. So, that’s how you would know it is the first issue of the first edition jacket. So, there’s a whole lexicon for understanding how these things work and how you establish priority of what the earliest and most desirable copies are.
Likewise, with Louise and Clark’s Expedition, which was published in 1814, here in Philadelphia. It contains the first map of that region of United States and so—a copy without the map is still valuable, maybe $20,000—with the map it’s over $200,000. People would cut the maps out and frame them, and so, often, they don’t have the maps. And in the 1970’s a reasonably good facsimile was produced, and sometimes people do what we call tipping in, and they glue it in so it looks like it’s original. So, you have to be very careful, put a lot of things to the light, you know, and feel them and know what it is you’re looking at.
Dan: How many copies of the Lewis and Clark book are there out there that have the map still in it?
Ernest: They come around. That is one that is still—there is a senate issue and then, there was a house issue, so everyone who was a congress person at the time received one.
Ernest: From the, you know, yeah, it’s . . .
Dan: And, those have been passed down from . . . ?
Ernest: Sure. Some still come on the market from time to time. And they will sell it at auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, sometimes through a private rare book dealer like the one I work for.
Dan: We’re talking with Ernest Hilbert of Bauman Rare Books here in Philadelphia. We’re talking about the business of rare books. Your comments are welcome at 844-Wharton, 844-942-7866.
Who is the typical collector of these pieces?
Ernest: Well, there isn’t a typical collector. When you’re buying on that level, of course it is a rarified group of people who have the capacity to buy on that level. Although I could never name names, I mean, certainly, A-list movie stars, famous musicians, people who are self-made millionaires through business, through technology, through hedge funds, hedge fund managers, things like that.
Dan: Probably the same types of people that go after rare automobiles or, you know, as you said, rare art.
Ernest: Right. There is an intellectual quality to it, historical quality to it, but there is also the luxury-goods aspect of it, which puts it along the same lines as those. But, someone would collect according to their intellectual interest and so, someone who made money through medical technology for instance or science might want to collect the history of science, and they would want to have first editions by Kepler and Newton and Harvey and Copernicus and people like that.
If they loved reading the great works of literature when they were young, and they never got time to read again, and they might want to go back and buy the great works of literature. Or perhaps you love 19th-century literature, and you like Dickens and people like that, or you may like 20th-century books, you like Hemingway. So, it has a lot to do with what the collector is already interested in and the standpoint of the collector.
Dan: Are there traditional auctions like we would know at say Sotheby’s with art specifically for rare books like this?
Ernest: Oh, yes, absolutely. All year round, there are auctions of one kind or another. Christie’s and Sotheby’s do a few each season of rare books, and they are often a single very large collection. And they are the two biggest auction houses in the world, of course, and they’re the brand names. They vie with each other to get the really big collections.
So, an example is Charles E. Sigety who made his money as a real estate developer in New York City. He passed away in 2014, and he collected wine, and he collected art, and he collected books. Particularly what we call Americana, which is a books, documents, and manuscripts relating to the founding of the United States, to the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, to developments and politics and governance and law.
[0:10:06] The second part of his collection went up in December of this past year. It was on the block and brought $1,800,000 altogether, and that was just the second part. So, that’s an example. Often these have names and so, sometimes there are famous sales named after the person who built the collection.
Ernest: And, that’s not the only way a collection could—a collection could also go to a library or to an alma mater.
Dan: If they’re donated, yeah.
Ernest: It doesn’t have to be broken up and sold again, but that’s often detailed in the will or the decision of whoever inherits the collection.
Dan: But, you’re talking about something like in terms of a collection that, you know, once a collector has it, they’re obviously going to hold on to it for quite some time and people obviously know what is in that collection and would like to have potentially pieces of that collection, but they may not be able to do anything about it for forty, fifty years unless that person dies as you said.
Dan: Or, they suffer a financial breakdown where they have to sell the group off.
Ernest: Sure. I mean, well, first of all, it is actually very private, so people wouldn’t know what you have. You would bid through an agent or, you know, through an auction house, of course. It’s discreetly done through a rare book dealer. People wouldn’t know you necessarily had it.
Sometimes people will take some part of the collection and sell it to get money to buy something else for the collection, and they do that in art as well. So, I sold this painting because there’s another one I want to add. I want to go in that direction. I want to sell off some of my Victorian pieces because I want to start getting into the 20th century. There’s also the thorny matters of death and divorce. And so, those factor in as well.
Dan: I was going to say then you have to go through all of that fun process to be able to find out who owns the book or not.
Ernest: Right. And then there are certain books that only turn up once in a generation or once every decade and those are ones . . . there’re others that you see every year. They’re very valuable, but not to the point where they’re almost vanishingly scarce.
Dan: What are some of the ones that seem to pop up every year?
Ernest: Well, you know, you can find Lewis and Clark. You can usually find a Darwin, Origin of Species in some condition. You know, the original green cloth in beautiful unrestored condition, because they were restored the way you would, you know, an art work or an antique. Sometimes people will fill things in or recolor them or something like that or reline them. But, a very nice Darwin in the green cloth that’s very nice hasn’t been touched, can go for $230,000 at auction and has.
And, another example, well, something that you will always see once in a lifetime as opposed to something that tends to come up again and again is Edgar Allan Poe. And this is something where the specialized knowledge really comes in handy. It’s a pamphlet, forty pages from the 19th century, and it just says, Tamerlane. It’s a poem, a poem by a “Bostonian.” Okay?
What people did not know for a very long time is that was a self-published first book by Edgar Allan Poe. He did it himself. He turned his back on the juvenilia. He wasn’t happy with it. You could find it for pennies in a bin because no one knew it was Edgar Allan Poe, and the most recent copy in 2009 brought $662,000 at auction at Christie’s. And so, that is just a tiny little forty-page pamphlet that doesn’t even have the author’s name on it. It’s the scarcity of it. If you wanted to collect 19th-century American literature, Edgar Allan Poe, that’s his first, you have to have that to complete your collection.
Dan: And people would just fall into getting that.
Dan: Because you didn’t know that it was Poe until . . .
Ernest: Or course. And so much later, when bibliographers were able to dig back and work out that he had actually put that out himself. And, you know, Walt Whitman is another 19th-century American poet who self-published his first book, Leaves of Grass in 1855, and even typeset some of it. That’s a book that goes for over a quarter million dollars now, and that was self-published. No publisher wanted to publish the book. And so, it’s another thing that happens, I mean The Great Gatsby was not a huge commercial success at the time. He was not “capturing the spirit of the Jazz Age” but exploring the darker side of it.
Another example of a book that, you know, at least is a runner-up or a possibility for the great American novel is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, and that was a complete disaster when that appeared in 1851. He was known, and he was a bestselling author of exciting high seas tales of adventures, of cannibals, of mutinies, and castaways. And that is a big philosophical complex metaphysical symbolic book.
Ernest: No one knew what to make of it, so critics hated it and it didn’t sell. And then, the ones that were left in the warehouse at Harper’s, they were there when the publisher suffered from a fire. Two years later there’s a warehouse fire and most accounts put it about maybe only sixty copies that survived. So, not even the whole first print run survived and there’s a chance that if the fire didn’t happen, they may have just thrown them out, pulp them, you know.
Ernest: So, it’s the scarcity opposed to how important the thing is.
Dan: Are there, I don’t know, I would say modern-day authors, and I don’t know where that year would kind of hit, but are there modern-day authors, I saw that, you know, J.K. Rowling has one of two books that are very well-thought of in this industry in this sector. Are there other authors that are kind of in that realm right now or are we in a time where what is being written is kind of moved away from that a little bit?
Ernest: Well, the industry term, which is loosely applied, is hyper-modern, which refers to anything after 1970, because printing techniques changed, and they have continue to change. There are authors from the 80’s and 90’s who are beginning to gain incredibly in value, and one of them is Cormac McCarthy, who’s very highly regarded and is every year considered a possibility for the Nobel Prize, one of America’s “chances.”
His book Blood Meridian, which is now considered really the Moby-Dick of the 20th century by some major critics, was also a commercial disaster, and most of the books were remaindered. Most of the copies did not sell, so they got a little mark on them and they were put out for a dollar. So, that book signed by him is now pushing $10,000—and that’s something that came out in the 90’s—because it is so scarce.
Another one is David Foster Wallace, who published his big book in the mid-90’s, which is Infinite Jest. And he committed suicide a few years ago in his late 40’s. And he was really considered sort of one of the great writers of his generation. And that book really put him on the map and made him a sensation, and he wrote a number of other books, which also are valuable, but that’s the big one, and that really has been leapfrogging in value. Over and over again you see that price just continue to go up, especially now that he’s passed away. He can’t sign any more.
Dan: I said J.K. Rowling because obviously, you know, she had unbelievable success because of Harry Potter. And I wonder if some of those pieces, you know, first editions of those books, will carry that type of value later on or if the commercialization of that entity has kind of taken away from it a little bit.
Ernest: Well, there’s two things to say about that. I have to be careful, but I mean certainly one of the things to say is that the very first book, The Philosopher’s Stone, the British edition, I think most of them were put into library bindings, which makes them really not collectible. And so, the number that actually sold was very small. Again, it was an example of something that was not a hit. It was not successful at the beginning.
So, signed copies of that will always be, I think very valuable because children’s book collecting is also a very large area. Everything from Lewis Carroll through to Dr. Seuss, things like this very valuable. Where the Wild Things Are is a very valuable . . .
Dan: Sure. Oh, yeah. absolutely.
Ernest: Because they didn’t print very many and that it took off that went into later printing, so a third printing doesn’t have the value of that first printing, before the Newbery medal was put on it.
And in another way perhaps there may have been an excitement and irrational exuberance over her later books signed by her as gifts and as people wanting copies of them for a few years. And, you know, while those values hold it’s hard to know what the future might . . . might contain for those values. But, I think she will always be considered very important writer of books for young adults and children.
Dan: Very interesting. Which you mentioned, you’re a poet as well?
Dan: And, we figured it’s Friday, well these people are heading into Valentine’s weekend. Let’s leave people with a little something different that we don’t normally do on the show.
So, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ernest Hilbert.
Ernest: Okay. I’m going to read a poem from my latest book, Caligulan, which was issued by Measure Press this past September. It’s a poem that is really about the way that technology and history continues forcing us forward in ways that transform us and affect our lives, that are really out of our control and hard for us to see. And it’s one of the things that drives us towards the impulse to preserve certain things, to preserve certain old buildings, or certain books that changed history. And it’s also about how mysterious and confusing all of these is to us. And so, it’s called “At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair.”
The dealers slump in book-lined booths. They send
Sentiments from new iPhones and laptops,
Ignoring the volumes in which they are penned.
Crowds slouch in sandals and shorts, but a few attend
Dressed as dandies or flappers, pose for photo ops,
Admire Art Deco, post for Facebook friends.
Out the big ballroom doors the noon sun stuns
For a moment, then, from the hot blur
Come telephone wires slung like old tendons
Among buildings declared Historic, that once
Meant much, now merely preserved, patched with plaster,
Marked with plaques of crooners, felons, tycoons . . .
Above, contrails cross clouds, and a black fly
Swims in the deep and disorderly sky.
Dan: Excellent. And, this is just one of the pieces of your book.
Dan: Which people can find in stores and online?
Dan: And the book is titled?
Ernest: It’s called Caligulan, which is a term I invented based on the name of the Roman emperor, Caligula.
Ernest: And so, that is a book that just came out this past year.
Dan: Great. Thank you very much for coming in.
Ernest: Okay. Well, thank you for having me.
Dan: Absolutely. Great to have you. That will do it for the show today. Hope everybody enjoyed it. Replays are 10:00 PM Eastern each and every week night right here on SiriusXM 111. Many thanks on the other side of the glass to Patty McMahon, to Monique Nazareth, to the mash buck buying Dion Simpkins for the Valentine’s weekend. Hi, Patty good to see you as well. Thank you very much.
Everybody enjoy your weekend. We will be back with you on Monday, we will be here on the holiday for another great show of SiriusXM’s Knowledge@Wharton. Enjoy your weekend folks. See you on Monday.
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