Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Break or Not to Break - Always the Question

One of the issues any used & rare bookseller faces is what to do with books that have great illustrations, esp. older ones. Many such books are worth more in parts than as a whole. Each bookseller has to address this issue for themselves at one point or another. All kinds of issues can come into play, from financial to moral. For a reflective seller, it is not easy.

So here's one bookseller's approach.

Many, if not most beautifully framed images in museums, libraries, historical associations, antique shops, homes, and used & rare bookshops come from books, magazines and atlases. Some of the sources were actually made to be broken up by their owners and made into framed art, whereas others were intended as collections of images to fully present a subject. But beauty often carries danger, and magnificent illustrated works were often broken up for sale or display. In the case of some works, complete copies are far more rare than any individual print taken from them or incomplete copies.

In a few cases regarding older works, these fragments are all we have left, and it is good that at least something survived. Fire, poor storage, censorship, and weather often decimated copies of early illustrated books, which were not printed in large numbers. The breaking up of the books at least insured that we would know a bit about them, their authors, and their publishers.

These days the greatest danger to such beautifully illustrated works is financial gain. As a notorious example, a book sold by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Nurnbergische Hesperides was sold for $50,000. Its new owner sent it to Europe where the 248 black and white plates were hand colored (also common with maps) and then put out to be sold around the world for between $500 and $1500 each. The 2 volume book, created in the early 1700s, was one of only 8 known copies in collections around the world and considered a landmark in 18th century botanical wrk. This is often repeated, daily, for works of much lesser importance.

For our shop, we practice a simple motte: do no harm. If the book is complete, we do our best not to break it up. That is, if we can sell it as is, we do so. If it is worth rebinding, we do that. In some cases I imagine the buyer broke a book up that we sold, but we just don't do that ourselves. If the book has lasted this long with its content intact, then we won't be the shop that destroys it as a complete entity.

If the book, magazine, or atlas is incomplete OR (sometimes) extremely common when we receive it, we will break it. Sometimes we break it for digitized art, to scan it. We sometimes sell the prints, ads, maps, or covers in the case of magazines. We don't often sell the articles within, though I know of booksellers who do have some success with this depending on the magazine or journal. In these cases the alternative is recycling, which we do with the leftover bits. We have not done this with any work older than 1880, and the earlier the work the less likely I feel we would break it up, as older books, even incomplete, are still hand made, and the printing, binding, and paper are still important to preserve in situ, and often show unique variations.

As I noted above, each bookseller has to set their own rules in this area. But a good bookseller will keep a longer view of the life of a book. Items that are common today maybe not be so common in future. A discerning eye for art or design is important as well. I see a lot of illustrations and pages removed from books or magazines which really aren't that attractive or interesting. Perhaps some folks just see an old magazine and get to cutting.

Not us, and not you I hope.

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Blogger DangAndBlast! said...

My father-in-law proudly tried to present me with prints cut from what he says were complete books, saying he'd spoken with the dealer, who'd happily chop up more books for the pictures... I had the hardest time explaining to him that, while he (my father-in-law) could do what he wanted, I really did not want to have any part in placing orders for destruction... thing is, most people are like my father-in-law and see no reason why not!

5:02 PM  

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