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Quotes & Comments

Neither Here nor There, or, What About Book Arts?

If we think of these much lower prices for contemporary book arts—compared to contemporary art—as the “good news” half of the good news/bad news scenario, we have to consider what the “bad news” is. If a new example of contemporary book arts is an edition rather than a one-of-a-kind, there is no reason to buy it as soon as it comes out. The book will probably not sell out within a year or two, and the price will probably not increase. So why not wait until next year or the year after, when things are more financially sound? But there are always exceptions. Some books do sell out within months, and, worse yet for the collector, at the point when the book is close to selling out the artist may raise the price, sometimes even double it. Had we all known that Walter Hamady was going to produce eight incredible Gabberjabs, we would have bought numbers One through Six when they first came out, at what now seems like very low issue prices.

I wish I could tell you which books were going to sell out immediately, but if I could do that I might have retired 20 years ago. However, it is worth noting that if there are fewer than ten copies in an issue, and the artist has some standing in the book arts world, it is a good bet that the book won’t be around for long.

As for one-of-a-kinds: this is a bit harder to discuss, since there are so many variables. The very best one-of-a-kinds may never get offered publicly, as they are often commissions made for a specific customer. I’m thinking now of Suzanne Moore’s books or Nancy Leavitt’s. These remarkable creations are rarely seen, since I get them from the artist and then hand them directly to the new owner. It is the same with commissioned designer bindings. While the art of Donald Glaister has become better known because of his three edition books, his unique bindings—which are simply glorious—are almost never seen. Exhibitions such as the Guild of Book Workers Centenary Exhibition help—but there should be more of them, as it is not easy to get around the US to see who is doing what. Juried exhibitions, such as those sponsored by the Guild, encourage collectors to explore new works and new artists that have already been vetted by their peers. Book arts conferences are useful, but they are almost all regional. However, as they are open to all who can afford the $100 or so to sign up, the quality of items offered has a spread that no Las Vegas odds maker would ever want to cover.

The question of who is buying contemporary book arts—especially in recessionary times—should be considered. If the price point for collecting contemporary book arts varies so greatly that all I can say is that it could be under $100, or many thousands, then where is the market? The institutional market is obviously going to be less than it has been in the previous five years. The New York Times recently reported that both Harvard and Yale saw their endowments drop thirty percent—for Harvard this means a decline to $26 billion and for Yale a decline to $16 billion. Other institutions, it was reported in the same article, suffered drops of eighteen to twenty percent. This will undoubtedly translate into much smaller acquisitions funds for Special Collections, if these funds continue to exist at all. And those funds which were earmarked specifically for acquisitions may be hard-pressed to maintain their autonomy. What this means for booksellers like me remains to be seen. It is hardly a great leap of the imagination to expect a drop in the number of institutional orders. Furthermore, the dollar value of orders that do come in will undoubtedly be significantly lower than in previous years

Private collectors are obviously in a different category. While the large-scale buying of the last ten years might be perceived as unseemly during a recession—no one wants to be seen as the new Dennis Koslowski—I return again to my point about contemporary book arts not being the same as contemporary art.

Private collectors have continued to commission one-of-a-kind books and bindings. No one has yet cancelled anything—for which I am grateful.

A more troubling question is where the new collectors are to come from. It is a question that comes up with hum-drum regularity on the ABAA chat page. The trade worries about a graying client base—as well as a graying trade. We are none of us, as the old saw goes, getting any younger. But rare book collecting is usually a serious pursuit reserved for those not in the throes of youth—with the exception of Bill Reese, of course, and my husband, the Sherlockian. Dan tells me he bought his first serious rare book from Lew David Feldman at House of El Dieff, when he was eleven or twelve. I didn’t start in this business until I was thirty-five. My mentor and later partner, John F. Fleming, was seventy when I started working with him. Most of John’s customers, if not older than he, were much closer to his age than to mine. Those customers included Lessing Rosenwald, Waller Barrett, and the Viscountess Eccles, then Mary Hyde. Now, most of my customers are younger than I am. But I have no customers in their twenties or even thirties, and never did.

The ABAA and ExLibris chat pages have taken turns debating the question of whether books, as we know them, will survive at all. Will we only have Kindles in the future? Recently, an interesting exchange on the topic of books without jackets on ExLibris appeared. Noted book artist Richard Minsky observed that books were in the process of changing from “repositories of information into objects of desire for other reasons.” Edward Levin replied that it could be argued that books have always been produced as objects to be desired for reasons other than as repositories of information. In either case, this is, I think, good news for book arts.

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