Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pablo Escobar: Drug Lord & Book Publisher?

by Stephen J. Gertz

Quick - you've just been incarcerated in La Cathedral, a maximum-security prison in Colombia built to your exacting specs so your accommodations are deluxe. You were the world's most notorious cocaine trafficker, head of the Medellin Cartel, but now you're all dressed-up with no place to go. You don't want anyone to forget your infamy. What's a coke kingpin to do?

Publish a book.


In 1992 Pablo Escobar did just that. Pablo Escobar Gaviria en Caricaturas 1983-1991 is his self-published valentine to himself, a vanity publication containing 352 political cartoons, photographs, and drawings (four in color) that originally appeared in Colombian newspapers.

Printed on June 2, 1992, it was limited to a small number of copies, the exact number unknown. It's full calf binding was graced by Escobar's facsimile signature and fingerprint on the front cover. After Escobar's escape from the lap of penal luxury a month later, in late July, 1992, his family, for reasons unclear, burned the print run. It appears that only a handful have survived, perhaps ten copies at most. It has become quite scarce.

But in a reminder that price is tied to market demand and not necessarily an item's rarity, the offering price on this book has ranged from the ludicrously absurd to the possibly reasonable. Two sellers on eBay - a site that has legitimate and knowledgeable rare booksellers yet is tainted by so many amateurs who have little idea of what they're doing and no feel for the market - offered copies at $60,000 (November, 2012) and $107,000 (February, 2013). PBA Galleries offered a copy in June, 2012 that was estimated to sell for $10,000 - $15,000.

The market spoke and it said (with Jamaican accent), "Have you lost your mind, Mon?" No surprise: they did not sell.

The eBay sellers had no excuse. PBA Galleries' initial auction page remains online with results posted (the lot in question, #94, excluded from the list, indicating no sale). The eBay offers were pure fantasy based upon a crackpipe dream. With no prior auction sales to compare to, PBA's estimate was, if too high, at least serious and down to earth, professionally evaluated, and within the realm of possibility based upon its staff handling thousands of rare books each year and knowledge of categories and their collectors.

Sanity prevailed when James Cummins Bookseller offered a copy two weeks ago for $5,000 and it immediately sold. The market found the price. The eBay copies possessed either Escobar's signature or the original publisher's box (as did the PBA copy), which, the dealers claimed, merited their grandiose, coked-up to the gills prices. (Why $107,000? Why not $100,000 or $110,000?).

A  low ($5,000, Cummins) and high (<$10,000, PBA) value has now been established. We can safely presume that the bidding at PBA began at around $9,000 and there were no takers. The reserve was likely around the same and it was not met. The copies offered on eBay are now worth approximately $5,000 - $8,750, if, of course, there's someone else in the world who cares enough to fork over that sum. That estimate will rise, of course, if demand exceeds supply. It will decline, naturally, if collectors collectively shrug their shoulders.

What the eBay dealers didn't understand because they did not know the market, was that the one person in the world who was a keen collector of drug-related literature, a completist who wanted everything in his area of collection, and, significantly, possessed fabulous wealth, had died in 2011. But Julio Santo Domingo was no fool and would have laughed at the eBay prices; he knew the marketplace. Hell, he was the marketplace for drug-lit., dominating it for the last fifteen years of his life. Escobar's book is interesting but not that interesting, at best a bizarre curiosity, and most, if not all, active collectors of drug literature do not have the scratch necessary to buy at exorbitant prices no matter how scarce the volume. You can't price books in a vacuum; offers have to reflect market realities. There is no such thing as intrinsic monetary value to any collectable, only what collectors are willing to pay and they rule the market. If viewers of Antiques Roadshow have learned anything it is that the rarest anything in the world is well-nigh worthless if nobody cares about it.

Pablo Escobar, whose fortune was once estimated in billions of dollars, would have been thrilled to learn that his book was offered at $107,000. Then, after coming down from the coke high, he would have been depressed when a copy actually sold for only a measly five grand. The market spoke and it said, tu libro es agradable, pero no es para tanto, mi amigo. Lo siento.

GAVIRIA, Pablo Escobar. Pablo Escobar Gaviria en Caricaturas 1983-1991. [Medellin, Colombia: Pablo Escobar,  1992]. First (only) edition, unknown limitation. Large quarto ( (9x7¾ in); 230 x 200 mm). [2] - 377, [1] recto-only pp. with 13 leaves of prologue and text, 8 leaves of photographs and portraits, 352 leaves of political and caricature, four in full color. Original padded calf with facsimile signature and fingerprint in gilt. Housed in the publisher's box.


  1. Please correct the spelling of the name of the country for the publications from Medillin. It is Colombia, with an o. Thank you.

  2. was offered 2003 for 350$ - just like btc at 500$ I did not buy :/


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