18 January 2007

Judging a book by its cover price, and does Australia have its Lewis and Clark?

The Abe Books list of the most expensive books sold in 2006 bears no resemblance to the Forbes Magazine one. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this as the Forbes people would have connections to the premium salerooms of the book world (I hesitate to say "trade") whereas Abe, by virtue of its online presence, has to deal with the book buying hoi-polloi.

What makes a book important enough to make the Forbes list?

"First, rarity," says Scott Brown, editor of the magazine Fine Books & Collections, the source for our list of highest-priced books for 2006. Since many valuable books end up in permanent museum collections, rarity is determined not just by the number of copies in existence, but by the number--usually much lower--that are still trading hands in the marketplace. "Only a handful of copies of most of these books are in private hands, and collectors know that when they come up for sale, it might be their only chance," he says.The second factor is cultural and historic importance. "Each of these books are among the most significant in their field," Brown says. For example, Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion) by theologian John Calvin, which sold last year for $720,000, "led to wars in Europe and drove Calvinists like the Puritans to the United States," says Brown. "It's easily one of the most influential books in history, yet until 2006, most collectors alive today have never even had a chance to own one."

The condition of the book and changing tastes in literature also play a role in a book's value, says Robert Reese, a rare-book dealer based in New Haven, Conn. Early editions of Ernest Hemingway are more popular than works by his contemporary Joseph Conrad, for instance, simply because Hemingway is more widely read today. British colonial author Rudyard Kipling, a "darling" among literary collectors in the 1920s, fell out of favor for many years, but now copies of his work are rising in price again.

The top 10 list for 2006 includes a surprising number of atlases--five, including three versions of works by Ptolemy. "The market in atlases, maps and cartography has been tremendously hot in the last 10 to 15 years," says Reese. "Values in that field have soared far higher than in some other areas of book collecting." That may be partly because people relate to maps on a personal level--often, for example, collecting maps of the area where they live. Also, Reese says, the rare-book market has seen a general trend toward the visual, with photography and books of illustration also growing in popularity. "I think the taste of modern times tends to be visual rather than literary," he says.

Forbes also reports

Last year also saw a record price set for an Australian book, with the sale of Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales, for $689,000", adding "A seminal work of exploration, the book plays a role in Australian history comparable to Lewis and Clark's History of the Expedition in the United States.

While Hume and Hovell's journey was significant in Australian history it is drawing a long bow to compare it to Lewis and Clark's crossing of North America. H and H travelled from Sydney to what is now Melbourne: if you're not familiar with Australia look at a map and see how how little ground their expedition covered relative to L & C (roughly 1000km as opposed to ?5,000 across North America). True, H @ H passed through (discovered?) a lot of fertile land and cleared the way for short term expansion into the eastern Australian hinterland, but they didn't answer the big questions such as whether there was an inland sea and how productive the land was.

I don't think it's appropriate to compare Hume and Hovell to Lewis and Clark. Nor do I believe that there are any other contenders for that title. Most of the explorers who came after Hume and Hovell were disillusioned by what they found: seeking an inland sea, they found desert. In other words they didn't really "open up" the continent as L & C did, but drew lines in the sand delineating the boundaries of feasible European settlement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1000 kms in the Australian bush, especially in the 18th century, is equal to 10,000 kms in the North American wilderness.

Australia and its bush is brutal. One of the many reasons the Japanese thought against invasion during the war. If you're not dying of thirst, you're surely getting poisoned by something. Add to that, Hume and Hovell did most of their expedition on foot, due to the denseness of the foliage. You tell me, what Luxuries did Lewis and Clark purchase with their USD$2,500 of government funding?