Monday, October 11, 2010

Fashion Takes a Hike: Jane Austen in Drab Boards Walks the Runway at Sotheby's

by Stephen J. Gertz

The fashionable, glitzy, and glamorous world of rare books is rocked by the news that The Library of an English Bibliophile's collection of Jane Austen first editions will be seen in public wearing nothing but the dull, drab, and dreary publisher's original boards they were brought into the world with when they make their debut at Sotheby's in London, October 28, 2010.

Basil Tombstone-Epitaph, high society arbiter of taste, declared, "Books should be seen and not read. In outfits like this I'd rather be dead."

Collectors disagree. " I like my books like I like my women. Plain and simple on the outside, just like they were on the day they were born, readable on the inside," the mysterious English Bibliophile said.

The Mysterious English Bibliophile.
Artist sketch based upon witness sightings.
Indeed, first editions published during the Regency Period, their cheap bindings a scandal, are highly sought-after. The original buyers routinely took their copies to a binder and had simple-to-elaborate leather bindings made for them. Who knew that someday people would actually pay top dollar for the book as-is? Books in their original boards are rare; from this era, scarce.

A Celebrity-Only, Strictly on the Down-Low Sneak Preview was held in Sotheby's Sales Room in print. Booktryst was, of course, invited. Here's our report.

[AUSTEN, Jane]. Sense and Sensibility: A Novel. In Three Volumes.
By a Lady.
London: Printed for the Author, by C. Roworth, 1811.
Gilson A1. Keynes 1. Sadleir 62a.
Sense and Sensibility has never made more sense than in this sober frock. Three for the price of one! Quarter warm cream over misty-blue paper-covered cardboard with irresistibly attractive paper spine labels in roseate cockatoo pink. Look at them - so very little loss, and all text intact and va-va-voom visible! A bit soiled but we like our books a bit soiled, it shows character; the book's been around, it knows a thing or two, if you know what I mean. Only seven copies in this garb have come to auction in the last thirty-five years. It's sensibly estimated to sell for $62,500 - $93,500. And, did I mention? Uncut!

[AUSTEN, Jane]. Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion:
By the Author of "Pride and Prejudice;" Mansfield Park," &c.
With a Biographical Notice of the Author. In Four Volumes.
London: John Murray, 1818.
Gilson A9. Keynes 9. Sadleir 62e.
Dear Northanger Abbey:

My husband has fallen in love with another book! Like you, it was completed in 1798 (or 1799) and then substantially revised over time until posthumously published in 1818. He's in love with a ghost! Whatever shall I do?  It's spooky!
Literary Ectoplasm-Envy in Zanesville, OH.

Dear L.E-E.:

BOO! (Sorry).

Look no further than this fine copy of my autobiography, published together with "Baby Jane" Austen's Persuasion! Proletarian-chic grey-brown boards, original spine labels, with the rubbing, bumps, and spots you'd expect to see from schlepping through one collection to another over the past 192 years but rarely so charmant for the wear! The estimate of $31,200 - $46,700 is quite persuasive, n'est pas?

[AUSTEN, Jane]. Emma:  A Novel. In Three Volumes.
By the Author of "Pride and Prejudice."
London: Printed for John Murray, 1816.
Gilson A8. Keynes 8. Sadleir 62d.
Just because she stooped from her class to appear in this fashion disaster don't think Emma clueless! All things considered, look at how fresh and clean she looks. She really knows how to wear clothes, transforming these sad-rags into glad-rags. Sheer elegance! This is surely her finest outfit. Yes, a few flaws to her spine labels but I like my books the way I like my women, with scars. Saddle-stitched, a plus. Estimated at only $31,200 - $46,700, this plain Jane Emma is the  emmis!

[AUSTEN, Jane]. Pride and Prejudice: A Novel in Three Volumes.
By the Author of "Sense and Sensibility."
Printed for T. Egerton, 1813.
Gilson A3. Keynes 3. Sadleir 62b. Ticknor 204.
Don't let pride and prejudice allow you to judge this book by its cover! Funeral-wear. Vapid. Lifeless. Ennui, oui? Non, ma cher! Only two copies of this most popular and lasting roman in its birthday suit have come to auction since 1975. To a collector, Yves St. Laurent could not have dressed her better; trés chic! Rebound in contemporary calf, it's a $65,000 - $75,000 book. Here, in the original binding only a mother (or collector) could love, the estimate is $117,000 - $156,000. C'est magnifique! 

[BRONTË, Anne]. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall..
By Acton Bell. In Three Volumes.
London: T.C. Newby, 1848.
Smith 4. Parrish 91.
Jumping on the fashion bandwagon and bringing up the rear, the last word belongs to Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, from the looks of her way behind in rent and tenement-chic. But at least she has some cloth on her back! Feel free to hang your laundry on this copy, the only one in original boards to show its face at auction since Gerald Ford was president of the United States, Harold Wilson ruled Britannia, flared denim skirts ended just below the knee, bootboy parallel jeans stopped at mid-calf, and plumbers pants began at mid-butt. It's estimated to sell for $93,500 - $109,000. A rags to riches story!

The reaction from fabulous fashionistas was mixed.

Actress/trendster Chloe Sevigny in a fundamentalist Mormon blouse by J. Smith.
"I can take or leave the peasant look," she said. Then she left.
Vogue editor Anna Wintour and designer André Leon Talley
could not contain their enthusiasm.
"Take me to your leader," they each commanded a Sotheby's functionary.
"I like my books the way I like my women," fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld said.
"Nowhere near the bedroom.
But these could change my mind.
Now, take me to your leader!"
Actress and fashion designer wanna-be Lindsay Lohan,
in attendance on a pass from rehab and radiant in a J. Crew hoodie,
was intoxicated by what she saw.
"I take full responsibility for my actions," she seductively slurred
to this reporter before she was handcuffed and taken away.
"I'm blotto for books."
 Not to be outdone, James Boswell pushed that most reluctant of mannequins, the anti-poseur himself, Samuel Johnson, onto the runway for a pass before the press.

BOSWELL, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD.
Comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works,
in chronological order; A series of epistolary correspondence and
conversation with eminent persons; and various original pieces
of his compositions, never before published.
London: Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, 1791.
First edition, first issue (vol. 1, p.135, line 10, "gve for "give").
Pottle 79. Rothchild 463. Tinker 338.
Original blue-grey paper boards with cream paper spines later lettered in black ink, minor localized marginal worming in volume 1, sans initial blank leaf in volume 2, occasional light spotting or soiling to boards, joints cracking, extremities worn but who's complaining? It's just great  to see the old man out and about, even in this shabby suit and without the initial leaf to cover his privates.

"I like my books the way I like my women. Like friends: few, well chosen, and modestly attired," Samuel Johnson said.

Not exactly a Don Juanson, and spoken like a man who buys his books at J.C. Penny. But not at this estimate: $23,400 - $31, 200. That's a lot of pennies!

Too many other goodies falling under the hammer at this sale to list in their entirety. But yet another ne'er-do-well shows up in original drab  boards, appearing, like its author, tubercular.

KEATS, John. Poems.
London: (C. Richards) for C. and J. Ollier, 1817.
Ashley III, p. 9. Hayward 231.
Doesn't look like much but, wow, what a personality! Don't forget, Camille was a catch and her kisses were  sweet, if sanguine. Estimated at $32,200 - $46,700. Yet the fashion cognoscenti will notice that this modest little miss is missing a key accessory necessary to make her ensemble complete. With the called-for and wholly intact printed spine label it's a $100,000 book.

That wraps up our report on Sotheby's upcoming Library of an English Bibliophile sale. Next week, we're in Paris for Le Bibliothéque d'un Bibliophile Français Fou sale. Strict dress code enforced: Straight-jackets only. Dust jackets verboten.

Images courtesy of Sotheby's

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