Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hey, Rare Book Guy: What's "Parrish Condition?"

Hey, Rare Book Guy:

I was reading an old catalog and saw a book described as in "Parrish condition."

What does that mean?

Buffalo, NY

Dear L.D. :

One of the most celebrated book collectors of his generation, Morris L. Parrish (1867 - 1944) amassed one of the greatest collections of the Victorian novelists ever assembled.

Parrish was an extremely successful stockbroker in Philadelphia who began to collect books in the early 1890s. His first (mis)adventure in the rare book world involved attempts to round out his parents' collection of Dickens. With each new acquisition, he had the volumes rebound to match those already possessed.

He was offered an exceptional copy of Great Expectations for $250, no small sum in the last decade of the 19th century. He bought it, had it rebound uniform to the others, and was stunned when the experienced collector he consulted afterward informed him that his $250 copy was now worth $25. First lesson learned: Publisher's original binding unless so unbelievably scarce that a rebound copy is a godsend.

By the onset of the First World War, he had become one of the world's most highly respected collectors, his taste, technique, and acumen setting a standard followed to this day: Only copies in the finest, original condition. He would acquire multiples - as many as necessary - until he finally found a copy that satisfied his demanding standard for impeccable first-everything condition.

Dealers fell all over him, offering whatever they thought might be of interest. They knew that  Parrish was willing to pay any price not completely off the charts for books that pleased him. Since he was primarily interested in building, strong, separate collections of twenty--four English novelists, he kept dealers busy - and slightly insane with his firm and unwavering desire for perfect copies.

So focused was he on condition that he would gladly pass up a presentation or association copy if  its condition was not up to snuff; condition trumped all.

Soon, dealers and other collectors began to refer to impeccable copies of any book by any author as being in "Parrish condition."

Though his primary area of interest was in the Victorian novelists he also collected American authors. But when he realized he could not obtain copies of these authors' books in the condition he required at a reasonable price, he sold this part of his collection, in 1938.

The remainder of the collection - approximately 6,500 volumes and around 1,250 manuscripts (mostly letters) - now rests in its own room in the Special Collections section of Princeton University Library. The Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists remains one of the finest ever seen, the breadth, depth, and condition of which will likely never be duplicated.

For some time after his death, dealers and collectors continued to use the term "Parrish condition" to describe the finest obtainable copy.

Alas, Morris L. Parrish is a somewhat, if not completely, forgotten name to many collectors and dealers in our time. Few know who he was much less what "Parrish condition" - the gold standard for copies of old and rare books - once meant.

That the term has fallen out of use is unfortunate. Dealer descriptions of "fine;" "mint;" "as new" do not adequately convey the meaning and usually require additional details to comfort the prospective buyer.

"Parrish condition" needs no qualifiers. It simply means that you'll likely never see another copy as pristine or nearly so again; no other copy comes close, no further words necessary, case closed.

And what is the antithesis of Parrish condition? Look no further than this description of a copy of Keruouc's On The Road currently being offered, brought to our attention by Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis Books. The dealer's report on this copy positively reeks "perish condition." (But such a deal!).
Reference: WAINWRIGHT, Alexander D. The Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists.
Have a question about an old or rare book? The Rare Book Guy is at your service. But first please read  the details.

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