March 2012 | Mitch Fraas

Recent Top eBay Book Sales

Online book selling sites like AbeBooks feature periodic updates on their biggest and most impressive sales, likewise collectors can have a pretty good idea of what prices items at major auction houses achieve. Yet the largest online auction site, with billions of dollars in transactions annually remains much more opaque to the collecting world as records of successfully sold listings are removed from public view after 90 days

Book and manuscript collectors with experience on eBay know how alternatively frustrating and exciting the site can be. Poor bibliographic descriptions, blatant fraud, blurry photos, and seemingly arbitrary pricing can hide gems or make duds less evident. Despite all of this, some truly remarkable material is sold every day on the site and I thought it would be helpful to the readers of the Fine Books Blog to provide a summary of the top sales from eBay's rare books category over the past two months as a running feature. Also, for those interested,  Collector's Weekly does offer a running list of the top eBay sellers from the previous week. Note that the links to the items below will break 90 days after their sale date. 

The highest five sellers by price:

  1. $17,600 Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologicae (Basel: Michael Wenssler, 1485) [istc it00194000]. Parts I and II.i .In contemporary pigskin with ink illustrations including the charming drawing of a devil (above). Sold by Hofmann Kunstmarketing in Germany on January 29th after two bidders took the item up from its $12,500 starting price. This incunable is a duplicate from the Frankurt Stadtbibliothek. A similar volume sold for 13,750 GBP in 2010 at Sotheby's.
  2. $12,644: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. First UK edition. Sold by Adrian Greenwood Books in Oxford on February 14th. 
  3. $12,000: Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Harper & Brothers, 1851. Green cloth. Sold by Ernestoic Books of Williamsville, New York on February 8th. 
  4. $11,110: Volume four only (out of six) of the Complutensian Polygot Bible. Published after 1520. Quite soiled. Sold by the seller "Zalocs" out of Florham Park, New Jersey on New Year's Day 2012. In nothing like the condition of the complete set sold from the Estelle Doheny collection at Christie's in 2001 for $82,250. 
  5. $10,000: Salvador Dali. Biblia Sacra with 105 Lithographs. Rizzoli, 1967. Number 900 of 1499. Sold by Novecento Art of Campobasso, Italy on January 12th.

Also at $10,000: An illuminated manuscript dated 1431 containing the second book of the dialogues of St. Gregory. 48 leaves. Sold by Edition Deluxe Rare Books of Portland, Oregon on January 26th. 

Many of the items in the top 20 sales had relatively few bidders so the two below stood out to me for featuring extraordinarily heavy bidding action. They demonstrate the continuing appeal of books in the long-popular collecting area of the birth of the United States and the history of science.

The most bidding action on any of the top items came in for a complete 18th century set of Galileo's works, eventually selling for $6,300 on February 2 after 68 bids: Galileo Galilei. Opere Divise in Quattro Tomi (Stamperia del Seminario, Giovanni Manfrè, Padova, 1744). Twentieth-century quarter-vellum over patterned paper covered boards; gilt-lettered brown morocco labels to spines. All edges dyed teal. Numerous tables and illustrations. Sold by Pittsburgh bookseller Lux et Umbra. A copy in less fine condition sold for 1,600 GBP at Christie's in 2008. 

The big seller in early Americana was a copy of one of the most important texts on the origins of the Bill of Rights.Volumes II and III (bound together) of The Debates and other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia (Petersburg: Hunter & Prentis, 1788-89) [ESTC W6821] sold for $6,322 just before the new year on December 27th after a total of 37 bids. Volume III of this text is extremely difficult to find in the trade and this particular copy had the fine provenance of a prominent Virginia family. Sold by the eBay dealer "addy113" from New York. 

For me the most interesting sale in the top twenty was of a presentation copy of a 1919 treatise written by the pioneering rocket scientist Robert Goddard: "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, volume 71, (Washington, 1919). "With the author's complements" to Clarence N. Hickman, one of Goddard's doctoral students at the time. Sold by JHmedals of Shannon, Ireland to the sole bidder for $7,250 on February 9th. JHmedals seems to have a large collection of Hickman's papers which they are offering for sale. Goddard's 1919 text is quite unexceptional as a material text - pedestrian brown paper wrappers and all the blandness of a scientific serial - but as the first real work of what we would call 'rocket science' is extremely desirable for collectors. For a facsimile (large PDF) see Clark University's archives.

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