Beats at Auction, April 2008

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Looking over eBay results in the last few weeks and reviewing the prices realized for the latest PBA Galleries Beat sale, I thought of two important little mags from the post-WWII era: Judson Crews’ Suck Egg Mule and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. Yes folks, I am going to beat a dead horse in this column: the Olympia Press titles of William Burroughs and Fuck You, a magazine of the arts.

There was a fascinating sale that closed on eBay on April 9, 2008. (pdf) The lot was all three Olympia Press titles of William Burroughs in dust jacket stored in clamshell boxes. The Ticket That Exploded was signed and in very good plus condition (a very tight signature by the way). The Soft Machine had some slight rubbing but was also very good plus. But the Naked Lunch. Well, brace yourself; it was described as follows: “As NEW FINE PLUS! There is no better example in the world. The DJ is immaculate. Colors are not only unfaded but pristine. Not a blemish.” The copy was unsigned.

Naked Lunch coverOver at the Bookride blog, they have a field day with internet descriptions like this. In over 15 years of collecting I have seen in person, in catalogs, or on the web about 5-10 “one of a kind copies” of the Olympia Naked Lunch. Check out ABE to get a sense of this. Why the hyperbole? Because truth be told, the book is not that rare, but supposedly fine/fine copies are going the way of the dodo. This is debatable given the number of “impeccable” copies I have seen over the years. In any case you can’t tell anything from scans on eBay, so buyer beware. That said, this “pristine” copy did look quite nice from the scans. Then again, Nicole Kidman looks good on screen but without the squadron of make-up people — look out. I would definitely not pay almost five-figure money for these books unless I handled them myself. Thus the need for book fairs, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and dealers you can trust. Even in the internet age the truly big book sales do not happen on the internet. Or so I thought. Bidding reached $9000 on the Burroughs books, but the seller wanted more and set an astronomical reserve. Therefore the books did not sell.

Let’s break that $9000 down. Fine signed copies of The Ticket That Exploded are at the high end: $1250. Fine unsigned Soft Machines are pricey around $750. So that leaves $7000 for this exemplary copy of Naked Lunch. This is a remarkable price for this title; I don’t care if it looked and smelled like it just came off the printing press and was signed by Burroughs with a blood-tipped syringe. Well, that would be quite a copy, but even superlative signed copies without associations list for around the $10,000 mark (Question to ponder: do they really fetch that price? Or are they always discounted like a new car?), but beautiful unsigned copies top out around $5000-$6000. (The Joseph the Provider copy at $10,000 is an exception as it is basically an unsigned copy. In my opinion, tipped-in signatures do not count as signed.) I saw a wonderful unsigned copy at the New York show behind glass at Peter Stern’s booth for $6000. Will they get this price? The $9000 was bid at auction. Unless the sale was voided in some way or this was a case of people bidding with no intention of paying like the Velvet Underground acetate, this is as good as an auction house price. Personally I don’t think the seller really wanted to sell. He was testing the waters more or less. What was he hoping to get?

Compare this eBay auction to the recent PBA Galleries sale of April 3, 2008. Naturally, the sale featured an Olympia Naked Lunch. All Beat auctions do. Remember that even so-called fine copies are not that rare. This auction featured a nice copy with the description: “Two miniscule tears to jacket head, still fine in fine jacket, very rare thus, in custom silk-covered folding box.” I have learned to be wary of PBA’s descriptions (their concept of fine does not jive with mine), but the high and low estimate were $2000-3000. Perfectly reasonable for a fine copy. The book slightly underperformed at $1920. Is this fine copy really $5000 less fine than the eBay copy? In rare-book collecting, condition means value. In this case $5000. As a seller, I would have jumped at the $9000 offered on eBay. If… if I wanted to sell.

The PBA sale was advertised in part as a Beat sale, but it was more accurately a San Francisco sale, like the George Fox sale of years gone by. Case in point, the rock posters, Digger material, examples of SF printing like Four Seasons, Cadmus Editions, and White Rabbit. The general lack of Burroughs / Corso material among the Beat items highlights the West Coast nature of the sale. Kerouac, Snyder, Whalen, and Ferlinghetti are all closely tied to the San Francisco Scene. I also might have marketed the sale as artifacts from the Doss collection. Some of the material came from the library of John and Margot Doss. The Dosses ran a literary salon in San Francisco (admittedly with a Beat focus), and Margot worked for 30 years at the SF Chronicle. I guess the Dosses do not have enough name recognition to carry a sale. But clearly, San Francisco and regulars of the Dosses’ salon were the focus of the counter-culture portion of this sale.

This portion was small: 95 lots total. Roughly 15% of the items did not sell. 43% of the items were under the low estimate. 22% were within the estimates, and 20% outperformed the high estimate. Dovetailing with the small, intimate nature of the sale (in a sense a reflection of the Doss’s literary circle), the best (and most intriguing) performers at the auction benefitted from a personal touch. It does not get much more personal than a letter. The lead dog was an archive of letters from Bukowski to Loss Pequeno Glazier. Glazier edited the 1985 Bukowski Primer. The 16 letters fetched $10,800, slightly over low estimate. A smaller collection of letters, art and typescript involving Philip Whalen and Margot Doss exceeded the high estimate at $720. Gregory Corso’s 1963 “Dream Sketch Journal” with 150 pages of entries, probably all unpublished, nearly doubled the high estimate at $4800. Thirty-two Ferlinghetti books from his personal library (signed) found a new home at $1320.

Trips Festival FlyerOne of the big surprises of the Beat portion of the sale was a roughly 9″X6″ flyer for the Trips Festival designed by Wes Wilson. The January 1966 Trips Festival had it all: the Pranksters, Kesey, Cassady, the Dead, Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog), Big Brother and Holding Company, and LSD by Bear himself, Augustus Owsley Stanley III. The Woodstock of 1960’s SF. The flyer quadrupled the high estimate soaring to $1200. Other psychedelic ephemera, like rock posters, postcards, and underground newspapers struggled to reach the low estimate or sell at all.

Book CoverThe biggest disappointment also garnered one of the highest bids. The Don Klein copy (as named in Krumhansl’s bibliography of Bukowski) of the gutter poet’s first chapbook, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, failed to reach the low estimate of $8000. It sold for $7800. The high estimate was $12000. This had all the elements of the personal but failed to ignite frenzied bidding. This was Frances Smith’s copy with the covers personally designed by Bukowski. Smith was the mother of Buk’s daughter, Marina Louise. The covers depict a pen and ink drawing of a man lounging in a chair “looking off into space” as the inscription on the cover states. The $7800 is quite surprising given that Ed Blair’s Presentation copy involving Buk and the Webb’s of Loujon Press sold for over $9000. Maybe too many copies of this chapbook have come to market recently, transforming the bestial wail into a stifled yawn. In my opinion, some bidder (hopefully a collector) got a very special item slightly under the estimate.

I am not going to spend much time on the Burroughs items. There were only three besides the above-mentioned Olympia Naked Lunch: a Grove Naked Lunch ($480), a Grove Naked Lunch with a later DJ ($180) and Early Routines ($1020). Almost all of them underperformed. The Early Routines was the exception. The Grove Naked Lunch again had way too high an estimate ($800-1000), and the book description was hyperbolic. The photo in the catalog did not in my opinion match up with the description. I think collectors scrutinized the photo, particularly around the edges of the dj, and stayed away. Barely reaching half the low estimate, it almost did not sell at all. The hope of a four figure unsigned Grove Naked Lunch appears to be something of a pipe dream.

Book CoverThe Early Routines is an interesting book. Published by Cadmus Editions out of Santa Barbara (a further tie to California) in 1981, the book features a portrait drawing of Burroughs by David Hockney. Both Burroughs and Hockney signed a limited run of lettered copies. This is one of those lettered copies. The lot also contained some ephemera from publisher Jeffrey Miller. On one level, this is a very cool title. The book links several generations of SF small press publishers. Graham Mackintosh designed the book. Mackintosh took over White Rabbit Press from Joe Dunn. Macintosh developed into one of the major (if troubled) figures in the SF small press scene. He worked with, taught, and influenced seemingly everybody in West Coast printing after 1960. Cadmus Press is an independent press that developed after Macintosh’s generation (maybe two generations). The publishing figure that lurks in the shadows is Alastair Johnston of Poltroon Press. Johnston was initially approached with the Early Routines project, but he passed not wanting to print what he saw as essentially a glorified reprint.

On another level, this title bores me. To some extent it is, as Johnston believed, a dressed-up reprint, a placing of old wine in fine crystal bottles. Graham Macintosh called such book art projects: “Artifical Rarities.” Arion Press is the king of this jungle. Rightly or wrongly, I see the fine press market dominated by projects like Early Routines that take stale, artistically conservative material and try to spice it up with Japanese paper, cork covers, and fancy bindings. The text generally does not challenge the established literary tradition, and the book object does not complicate the concept of the book in an innovative fashion. They are essentially coffee table books. Copies of Fuck You, a magazine of the arts, My Own Mag, or C strike me as far more pleasing on the level of form and content. These mimeos hold more claim to the status of Art than some of the more celebrated work by the lions of the fine press.

That said a Fuck You generally does not have the price tag of a book like Early Routines. It is my personal belief that in time it will, but it does not now. This brings me back to eBay. Recently a copy of Fuck You 3 (God thru Orgasm) turned up on eBay. The first time around the mag had a reserve and a buy it now of $750. At around the same time, somebody suggested to me that early issues of Fuck You were in the $1400 range, because he saw it listed on a database site at that price. The fate of this particular copy of Fuck You 3 is a corrective to such faulty logic. Initially the bidding stalled at $202.50, not making the reserve. It relisted and sold at $200. This is about right. This is the historically correct amount based on years of auction and catalog results. The early issues (one thru four) are in the $200-400 range rising as you backtrack to the first issue. Starting with the 5th Issue, prices can fall to around $100. Issue 5/7 is maybe $100-$150 higher. The Mad Motherfucker issue with the Warhol cover is the only Fuck You title (from the entire Fuck You bibliography) in the four-figure range without signatures and extras. Somebody correct me on that if I am wrong. Over time the Warhol issue has consistently sold at that price in any condition. Roughly a decade ago a complete run sold at Ken Lopez for $2000. What is the price now? $3000? $4000? At four grand, half that amount is the Warhol issue. That leaves about $2000 for twelve issues. You do the math to see that single issues are not $500-$1400 as seen online. All Fuck You prices are sure to rise. Exhibits like the one on the Fugs at Printed Matter, the added attention to the mimeo revolution, and the death of print will make sure of that. But, the value will not immediately shoot up to the four figure range overnight just because of these events. A long-term healthy rare book market depends on just such a steady rising tide, not a tsunami. The current real estate market and the general economy show the wisdom of markets mimicking the pace of the tortoise and the folly of investors chasing hyperactive White Rabbits.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 17 April 2008.

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