Friday, January 01, 2010

Collectible History of Science Books (Building Private Museums)

Posted by Darin Hayton on 01/01 at 10:14 AM

However much the economy is reported to have slackened during 2009, apparently the market for collectible books did not falter. People with considerable disposable income continued to buy rare books. Abebooks reports strong sales of rare and collectible books. Two of the top ten most expensive rare books Abebooks sold in 2009 were history of science:

  • Tied for fifth at $12,500 is Alcabitius, Libellus ysagogicus Abdilasi Id est servi gloriosi dei: qui dicitur Alchabitius ad magisterium iuditiorum astrorum (Erhard Ratdolt, 1485) — Alcabitius was a 10th-century Arabic astrologer whose works became incredibly important in Western Europe after they were translated into Latin. There is an excellent recent edition and translation of this work: C. Burnett, K. Yamamoto and M. Yano Al-Qabisi (Alcabitius): the Introduction to Astrology (London: The Warburg Institute, 2004).
  • Tied for ninth at $11,000 is Darwin, On The Origin of Species (New York, The Appelton and Company, 1860) — this is the first American edition. You can see a digital copy of this edition at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Abebooks lists other early editions of The Origin for as little as $4-5,000 (and as much as $16,000), in case you can’t live without your own copy.

Niccolo Cabeo’s Philosophia Magnetica (1629) sold for a respectable $8,800 (again, here are other copies still for sale). For the complete list of top 10 most expensive books, see Most expensive books.

The first American edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (Source: Freeman’s Auction Catalog)

It might be worth mentioning here that the book buying public rarely price-shops. I suspect that bragging rights enter into this equation. Collectors want to say “I paid x thousand dollars for my copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species” or whatever book they have purchased. Also, the people purchasing these books seem more concerned with aesthetics than with the content. The books need both to cost a lot and to look good on the shelves. These books are are surrogates for culture and learning. People who have no interest in the book’s content, in the arguments presented in the book, in the book’s historical importance (or lack thereof) but who want to cultivate a particular image are driving the market.

For example: Although there are few details about the copy of Darwin’s book that sold the book sold through Abebooks for $11,000, another first American edition (this a second printing) sold at auction for a mere $550 (see the lot details here). Granted, the auctioned copy is a bit bumped and not the prettiest of copies, but it is completely serviceable as a book. The pages are all there, the text is legible. But it wasn’t, perhaps, as pretty on a shelf and was considerably cheaper (almost accessible to the proletariate). The justification for paying $10,500 more for a “cleaner” copy has to be grounded in looks and the significance of price. The buyer can boast of having purchased a clean copy of a text that most people could not afford. It’s all about building private museums.

Tags: alcabitius, charles darwin, collectible books, private museums, rare books