Friday, October 21, 2011

Breaking books

We get questions almost every day about values (and please note that this blog is not the place for questions about value of specific items!). Today I got two questions related to the same topic: viz. whether a book with prints in it was more valuable as a whole or with the plates taken out and sold individually.

I thought I would address this issue in this blog, partly because the economics of it are somewhat interesting, but also because it is part of a larger topic which I find very interesting: breaking books. I have thought much about this general topic and do plan to write a blog on my thoughts at some time (I have a general inclination against breaking books, though I am not against it in all cases), but today I'll just consider the economics of the situation.

The value of a book (and I include portfolios in the category for this discussion) does have a lot to do with the value of its prints. Any book with valuable prints is going to be valuable itself. Obviously if the prints can be sold for a lot individually, there is a value for the book itself to anyone who might take it apart to sell the prints.

This is often called the "break up" value of the book, and basically it is a factor of the value of each print multiplied by how many prints there are. Now this is predicated on the notion that the prints would be sold for a profit, so obviously the factor used is less than one (so a book with 10 prints worth $100 each is worth less than $1,000 in break up value).

This isn't just that whoever is breaking the book for the prints has to make a profit on each print, but there is the question of the costs of selling the prints. In most books there is a range of how desirable the various prints are, which means that the prints are often priced a different points, but also that some prints are easy to sell (even at a higher price) and some very difficult to sell (even at a lower price).

However an individual figures this all out, this determines the "break up" value of a book. This is often the value at which a book will minimally sell at auction, for there usually are at least some buyers who would be interested in a plate book for its potential as a "breaker."

There are naturally other factors involved in the value of a book besides its plates. These can include scarcity, collectibility , quality of binding, and many other things. While the "break up" value of a book is often the minimal amount it will sell for, a book will often sell for more than that. For instance, the recent sale of a complete first edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America for about $11.5 million is fairly clearly well above any "break up" value.

Still, in many cases, there is a lot more money to be made by selling all the prints individually than from the sale of a book as a whole. So, how should I respond to the people asking whether they should sell their book as a whole or break it and sell the prints? The answer is not that clear even just on a financial basis, ignoring the other questions such as whether it is ok ever to break a complete book.

There are many costs involved in selling prints. A book can usually be sold just as is, but a print often needs to be "prepared" before selling (such as matting it or framing it). And it generally takes more effort to find buyers for multiple items than for one item. A book is a single sale; it can be put on ebay or put at a regular auction or sold to a dealer and the money received right away.

Selling a lot of prints takes much more time. If you put them all up for sale at once, say at an auction, they can saturate the market and thus drive their value down. Of if you put them out for sale at a gallery or flea market or whatever, some are likely to sell fairly quickly, but others can take a lot of time. This means that it takes more effort and the money comes in over a longer period of time. $10 today vs. $50 in two years is not such a clear cut choice.

And some of the prints might not even sell at all. The Alexander Wilson bird prints are mostly very attractive, but it isn't easy to sell the vulture print with the dead sheep in it! Or atlases, where the maps of American can sell quickly, but one might be looking for a buyer for the map of the lower Rhine for a long time.

I guess if you like the idea of setting up a gallery or going to flea markets to sell the prints, then it can make more sense, but it more often makes financial sense for a non-professional to sell a book complete (not to mention all the non-financial reasons to keep books together!).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Botanical prints by William Curtis

Early botanical prints are generally quite desirable both for collectors and those wishing to use them as decoration. They can be found uncolored, colored by hand, or printed in color, and in many different sizes, not to mention price ranges.

The prints found on the market generally range in date the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, with each period have its own typical style. Many love the boldness of the late nineteenth-century chromolithographs or the texture of the early nineteenth-century stipple prints, but my favorite botanicals are the engravings of the late eighteenth-century, especially those that are hand colored. Some of these can be fairly expensive, but the majority remain quite affordable. Some of the most reasonably priced, attractive and historically important of these prints are those done by William Curtis.

William Curtis (1746-1799) moved to London as a young man to become an apprentice to an apothecary, but his true love was botany and other natural history. He soon gave up his apprenticeship and took to a career as a natural scientist. His first work, which he produced at age 25, was Instructions for collecting and preserving insects; particularly moths and butterflies. In 1772, Curtis was appointed as Demonstrator of Botany to the Society of Apothecaries at the Chelsea Physic Garden and in 1779 Curtis established his own London Botanic Garden, where he cultivated about six thousand species of plants.

One of Curtis' particular interest were those plants growing within London. That interest led him, beginning in 1777, to work on a huge, multi-volume work, Flora Londinensis; or Plates and Descriptions of such Plants as Grow Wild in the Environs of London, intended to describe and illustrate every plant growing in London. This publication, which was completed in 1799 in six volumes, contained text and a folio engraving of each plant.

The Flora Londinensis was of high quality and very informative, and received excellent reviews. However, it was expensive for Curtis to produce, which meant it had a high price. Also, as it was a heavily scientific work focused on mostly humble plants growing along streets and in the fields of London, it had a somewhat limited market. Sales were not good, Curtis' costs were high, and after two volumes, he was debt-ridden.

In order to make some money, Curtis came up with the idea of a magazine to illustrate and describe the many attractive and exotic plants becoming available to gardeners in England. Thus was born, in 1787, his The Botanical Magazine; or Flower-Garden Displayed, a monthly publication with each issue containing a description and a hand-colored engraving of three plants.

As Curtis explained in the first issue, “The Botanical Magazine’ owes its commencement to the repeated solicitations of several ladies and gentlemen subscribers to the author’s botanic garden, who were frequently lamenting the want to work, which might enable them not to enquire a systematic knowledge of foreign plants growing in their gardens, but which might at the same time afford them the best information respecting their culture."

The Botanical Magazine, unlike the Flora Londinensis, was a huge commercial success. Its small size, bright flowers, and the fact that payments for each issue were quite modest, made it very popular. Curtis sold thousands of copies of each issue, the money helping him to continue work on his folio work: he is said to have remarked that each of his publications brought either “pudding or praise.”

Such was its success that Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, as it became known, became the longest running botanical magazine ever; despite a few hiatuses, it is still in publication by the Royal Botanic Gardens. The first thirty volumes used copper engravings, with later images being done by lithography and then later by photomechanical processes. Until the mid-twentieth century the prints were all hand colored.

All of the Botanical Magazine prints have a charm and attractiveness (not to mention accurate detail), but the earliest ones, those that are the engravings from the eighteenth century, are the most appealing. These prints are generally available at reasonable prices and make for great gifts and decoration, with their visual appeal and fascinating history. One of the interesting things about these prints is that they are numbered in sequence from the first print on and each is labeled with the month and year it was produced.

The larger prints from the Flora Londinensis generally do not have quite as much “petal power,” but they too are very attractive, historically interesting, and modestly priced. Curtis’ prints are a nice place to start for the beginning collector or anyone wanting some historical art for their walls.