Talks Here and There

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The Washington Post, Sep. 22, 1889; pg. 9.
Talks Here and There.

People whose hobby is the collection of old and rare books.

Volumes of great value.

The chandelier that William H. Vanderbilt bought in France for $5,000 was subsequently bought by a gentleman in Washington for $400—odd facts.

“What is the rarest and most expensive book handled by antiquarian booksellers at present?” asked a Post reporter of James O’Neil.

“I think the first rank could be taken by Poe’s ‘Tamerlane,’ of the edition of 1827,” he answered. “It would bring $750, judging by offers that have been made for it. Some time ago someone offered $10 in an advertisement for a copy of this edition, finally running the price up to $100, while wealthy collectors have since raised it to over seven times that sum.”

“The high prices are generally paid for first editions, are they not?”

“Yes, a first edition will usually bring ten times the price of other copies. Every collector endeavors to get them, and in many cases, where the authors book at the time was something of a venture, the numbers run off were limited. Poe’s ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,’ first edition, brings $25, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Fanshawe’ of 1828 will bring $150.

“Here is a very rare book,” continued Mr. O’Neil, producing from a drawer a copy of the first census of the United States, of 1790. “That belonged to Joseph C.G. Kennedy, who was the superintendent of the seventh and eight censuses. The book contained but fifty-two small pages of printed matter, showing the enumeration of the population of the states, tabulated to show race and age. This copy was sold along with other books of Mr. Kennedy’s library, and was bought by a looker-on for eighty cents, afterwards being sold to us for $5. it is now very valuable, as but a few copies are in existence. Henry W. Elliott’s report of a visit to the ‘Prybiloo Group Seal Islands of Alaska’ is also a rare book, only seventy-five copies have been printed.”

“Prices that books will bring have the greatest possible range. Often a neglected copy of a rare edition, or a book which is connected to an interesting association will be sold and passed from hand to hand for a long time, often stored away in an old garret for many years until its real value is understood, when it is picked up and commands an enormous price. One case of this kind is that of a little Virginia almanac of nearly a century ago, which is preserved in a glass case at the State Department. I bought it along with a lot of other books, paying for it twenty-five cents. I then sold it to a reporter at the Capitol for $1, after some hesitation on his part because of the price. It had belonged to Thomas Jefferson and in its leaves were a good many notes, including an account of his household expenses. When it finally came to the understood that that was really the household of Thomas Jefferson, the book too on a great value and the State Department thought it was being bought for a song when they secured it for $22.50.”

“Do not many people prefer old books to new ones?”

“Most decidedly. I have a customer who would give $50 for a rare book if its leaves were uncut, whereas if they had been smoothed down he would pass it by if offered him for $10.”

“What character of books do people generally seek in antiquarian stores?”

“Standard works of all sorts—history, poetry, and fiction, besides legal and medical text books.”

“What subjects are popular among collectors?”

“Americana—books relating to America. Some seek everything relating to Washington city, while many look out for photographs and portraits of all kinds to illustrate their books. a gentleman who comes here is illustrating in this manner Appleton’s Cyclopedia, and has already a large collection of pictures to illustrate ‘Allison’s Europe.’ He will take pictures on either persons or noted scenes mentioned in it, which he places at their proper place in the book. A curious collection is being made by a Washington physician, the husband of a famous author and now in Europe. He comes here almost every day when in the city to buy bookplates, comprising the coat of arms of various families in Europe. He now has several hundred in his collection, and his trip across the Atlantic will probably result in an addition to it of many more.”

“Do collectors often call for old music, and endeavor to get first editions of it, as they do in purchasing books?”

“Not at all. The buyers of music seem to want something new. No great effort seems to be made, so far as I am aware, to secure old editions. There are a few persons who work that as a hobby, but they are not numerous enough to make the sale of such works a very profitable business.”

“Do authors ever seek their won books through second hand stores?”

“Their visits are often very amusing. Not long ago a popular authoress came here, scanned the shelves, and caught sight of one of her own books. Her eye flashed, and she demanded very sharply to know where that book came from. I told her we had bought it along with others of the same general character, but it did not satisfy her. She asked a number of questions, seeming to be searching for a hidden meaning that prompted anyone to bring her book to a second-hand store. Authors often go about second-hand book stores and look to see if they can find their own works, which, to a certain extent, is regarded by them as an evidence of decay of popularity. There is a great deal of truth in their suspicion, as at no other place can the waning popularity of writers of books be seen.”

“Do you ever have calls for old city directories of Washington?”

“Yes, lately a number of real estate men have been getting complete collections of them. The first directory was issued in 1822 and was a little book.”

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