Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The $175,000 Dust Jacket Comes to Auction

by Stephen J. Gertz

Sotheby's Oct. 10, 2011. Est. $150,000-$180,000.

The incredibly rare and desirable dust jacket to the first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is coming to auction via Sotheby's-New York Library of an English Bibliophile Sale Part II on October 20, 2011. It is estimated to sell for $150,000-$180,000. An excellent copy of the first edition, first printing of The Great Gatsby, a book that in near-fine/fine condition sells for $7,000-$10,000, is included with the dust jacket.

The dust jacket is in the corrected first state, i.e. the "j" in Jay Gatsby on the rear panel was printed in lower case and carefully hand-corrected in ink to upper-case by the publisher. No uncorrected copies of the first state dust jacket are known to exist. In the second state of the dust jacket the "J" was corrected by  the printer.

This copy in this dust jacket of The Great Gatsby sold at Bonham's-New York, June 10, 2009, lot 3252, for $182,000

Currently offered by Peter Harrington Rare Books @$189,000.

Another copy of the ink-corrected first state dust jacket (with first edition, first printing of the book along for the ride) is currently being offered by Peter Harrington Rare Books. The asking price is $189,000.

"Francis Cugat’s painting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the most celebrated and widely disseminated jacket art in twentieth-century American literature, and perhaps of all time. After appearing on the first printing in 1925, it was revived more than a half-century later for the 'Scribner Library' paperback edition in 1979; more than two decades (and several million copies) later it may be seen in classrooms of virtually every high school and college throughout the country. Like the novel it embellishes, this Art Deco tour-de-force has firmly established itself as a classic. At the same time, it represents a most unusual, in my view, unique form of 'collaboration' between author and jacket artist" (Charles Scribner III).

Francis Cugat was the older  brother of "Rhumba King" bandleader Xavier Cugat (think Charo, his last featured singer, i.e. "coochie-coochie"), his surrealistic composition featuring the hypnotically sad, brooding eyes, and carmine lips of a woman (Daisy) overlooking a city as a brilliantly lit,  lyrically garish amusement park. The outlines of her head are barely traced in; her eyes arrest attention as her  lips come near to a kiss of the  skyscraper. It's an extremely haunting image that lingers in memory, a forshadowing of the tragedy. The  painting is titled Celestial Eyes and Fitzgerald was aware of Cugat's progress with the dust jacket design while he was still writing the book. He was so impressed and inspired  by it that he commented to his editor at Scribner's, the great Maxwell Perkins:

"For Christ's sake don't give anyone that jacket you're saving for me. I've written it into the book" (Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, p. 79).

Cugat's final jacket painting, Celestial Eyes.
Gouache on paper.
Princeton University Library.

The reference is found at the end of chapter four. Narrator Nick Carraway states, "Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and binding signs..."

In 1990, Charles Scribner III lectured at the University of South Carolina on Gatsby and this dust jacket. The must-read text can be found here.

In the late 1990s I ran into a friend/collector and ad hoc dealer (when the mortgage required  immediate attention) at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair. Shell-shocked, he related the following story: An hour earlier a dealer had approached him to ask if he had anything to sell. My friend pulled from his bag a first edition of  The Maltese Falcon in a beautiful, untouched first state dust jacket ("$2.00" on front flap). This DJ is also extremely scarce. The dealer began to salivate. When he asked my friend how much he wanted for it my pal swallowed hard, screwed his courage, and blurted, "$55,000."

The dealer wrote him a check on the spot. An hour afterward my friend had just learned that the dealer had flipped it to a client for $100,000.

A beautiful copy of Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon in is also being offered at Sotheby's Library of an English Bibliophile Sale Part II. It is estimated to sell for $60,000-$90,000. This copy was last seen at Sotheby's-New York on June 18, 2004, lot 296. It sold for $65,000 (plus buyer's premium).

The Book Collector's Library in Canada is offering a near-fine/fine first edition, first printing in an attractive first state dust jacket for US$136,000.

Very good copies of The Maltese Falcon without the dust jacket sell for $3,500-$5,000.

As clothes make the man, dust jackets make the book.

Images courtesy of Sotheby's, Peter Harrington Rare Books, and Princeton University Library, with our thanks.


  1. Steve - thanks for the great post. One small correction - Matt Bruccoli told me he knew of one copy of The Great Gatsby in an uncorrected (small j) first state dustwrapper. It is in the library of an American institution (sorry folks, not likely to ever come up for sale). It was probably an advance, pre-publication copy that was never offered as a new book in bookstores in 1925. - Dan Gregory, www.betweenthecovers.com

  2. Great article. I have also read a good article about the great gatsby at www.rarebooksdigest.com. please check it out and let us discuss this


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