Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hey, Rare Book Guy! What's With "All Half-Titles Present"?

Hey, Rare Book Guy:

From time to time I see "all half-titles present" in dealer catalogs. I'm a novice but I do know what half-titles are. I just don't understand why it's necessary to say "all half-titles present."

Why wouldn't they
[be present]? Is this a stupid question?

Syracuse, NY

Dear JDH:

Your question is not stupid at all. It does, as a matter of fact, raise an important issue for collectors.

We all want our collectible books to be in the earliest state possible (first edition, first printing, first state of the dust jacket, etc.) and complete with all called-for leaves but sometimes the  standard practices of the past come back to vex us in our quest for perfect copies with no excuses.

Until the 1840s it was routine for books to be published in plain, drab boards with a label or in simple wrappers. And it was just as routine for buyers to purchase from a bookseller then walk down the street to a binder and have the book pulled from its inelegant binding and finely rebound in leather.

Commonly, when binders rebound the book the original blank leaves were excised. Sometimes they removed the half-title page, that simple leaf appearing just prior to the title page with only the title of the book and nothing else; it was not considered necessary to the integrity of the book, and collectors were no way near as obsessive as we've since become.

The practice of removing the half-title was absolutely routine during the British Regency period. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a key example. A three-decker originally issued in plain blue paper boards with a brown paper spine and simple white title label, most copies that have survived were contemporaneously rebound in leather and lack the half-titles, which were tossed out.

As a consequence, a first edition copy of Pride and Prejudice with all three half-titles present is quite rare. If the copy is completely "straight" without any monkeying to "fix" it, (another topic altogether) it's a $50K-$80K book. Without the half-titles, the price plummets. This is true even if the copy is in the publisher's original, lackluster binding.

So rare is Pride and Prejudice with all half-titles present that the great bibliographer and collector Michael Sadleir did not have one, nor did Austen's bibliographer, literary scholar Sir Geoffrey Keynes.

Yeah, you want "all half-titles present."

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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