Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Brian Cassidy, a bookseller just beginning his journey in the book world, and about his offering of a high-end Burroughs letter. At the other end of the spectrum is British bookseller Simon Finch who stands at the top of the mountain. Simon Finch has been in operation since the mid-1980s and is as high-end as it gets. Their catalogs are reference materials of the highest order and they deal in a full range of items from the beginnings of print to modern firsts. The books for sale are in many cases the most important and enduring examples of human thought and achievement. Case in point was their acquisition of a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio published in 1623 at auction in 2006-2007. This was the Dr. Williams Library copy held by the Library since the 1720s. The price paid was in excess of $5 million making it the highest-priced book acquired that auction season. The Library opted to sell this National treasure (46 of the roughly 230 copies of the First Folio actually remain in England) in order to finance the rest of the Library’s operations. As Nicolson Baker’s Double Fold and Nicholas Basbanes’ trilogy of books on all thing biblio make clear, this is something of an epidemic for libraries big and small.
A look at Simon Finch’s recent offerings on Abebooks shows that Burroughs collectibles find a place in the stacks of this most elite of booksellers. Up for sale is a first edition of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch inscribed by Burroughs and publisher Maurice Girodias to Beat patron, bookseller and collector Roger Richards. The price tag is a “mere” $31,160 (depending on the exchange rate), making it one of the highest-priced Burroughs items on Abebooks. In my piece on the Groff and Ronan auction, I mentioned a worn-out copy of the Olympia Soft Machine inscribed by Burroughs and Girodias that I purchased for $500. The book is inscribed to Brian Bailey. Interestingly, Bailey was a “cherished friend” of Roger Richards and the two men ran a book shop together for a time. Quite possibly, Burroughs and Girodias signed the Soft Machine at the same time as the Naked Lunch. Maybe in the early 70s when Girodias was in New York City with the US branch of Olympia Press and Burroughs was either visiting or living in the city. I will have to research my chronology. Given its condition, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Proably not. Burroughs’ books with the signatures of both men are highly unusual. There is even a minor association. I have only seen these two in my experience. Someone who saw the Finch Naked Lunch at a book fair in London told me that the condition is of high quality for an unsigned copy let alone one with this type of association.
The question remains: is it worth over $30,000. There are a handful of comparisons that are currently or recently available. The ones that jump to mind are a couple of offerings by Nudel Books, a New York City bookseller. Harry Nudel has a copy of Minutes to Go signed by Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles and Brion Gysin to de facto publisher Gait Froge for $32,500. He describes it as a museum piece and the dedication copy. I have discussed this book in my piece on Burroughs and bookstores. Nudel also has a copy of the Olympia Naked Lunch signed by Burroughs to Froge for $17,500, roughly half the price of the Simon Finch copy. The Nudel copies provide a very interesting association from a period in Burroughs’ creative life that I am particularly fascinated with. But again is the Minutes to Go a $30,000 book? Has a Burroughs first edition signed or even with a stellar association ever fetched this type of price and who would pay this type of money?
Nudel suggests in his description (“a museum piece”) that an institution would. I wonder. Reading the recent New Yorker article on the acquisition practices at the University of Texas, the focus of big money spending is currently on manuscripts and archives. Texas paid $500,000 for several boxes of Don DeLillo’s papers and manuscripts. For $2.5 million, the university received a tractor trailer of Norman Mailer’s papers. More in the neighborhood of the Naked Lunch and Minutes to Go currently on sale, Staley, the head of acquisitions at Texas, paid only $40,000 for a nice sampling of Graham Greene letters. Institutions want quantity as well as quality. Is a single Burroughs title even with the association and its accompanying significance going to merit $30,000? I am completely out of my depth here but I doubt it. How would they justify the cost? The Finch Naked Lunch and Nudel Minutes to Go are wonderful books, but they are more likely to serve as curiosities at an institution. Their research and reprint value is limited at best. There are no annotations or marginalia for further study. It should be noted that the Dr. Williams’ copy contained marginalia of an early 18th and 19th Century reader making the book valuable as a resource to discover Shakespeare’s reception and study in an earlier era. This is not an issue with letters and manuscripts which are in high demand by researchers and scholars and provide opportunities for reprinting as a scholarly volume at a university press.
In addition, most institutions do not have the deep pockets and aggressive policies of the U of T. The sale of Shakespeare’s First Folio highlights the financial woes of museums and libraries around the world. Libraries cannot afford to care for the treasures they do have, let alone spend big money on new prizes. I do not think the NYPL or Ohio State would shell out that type of money for what is basically a first edition which would not have the research and republication value of manuscripts or letters.
That would leave a wealthy collector like those paying record prices for all the Warhols and Rothkos. Is a $30,000 Naked Lunch or Minutes to Go a good investment? Can they possibly go any higher in value than that? Do these titles belong in the class of market tested signed first editions like Hemingways, Joyces, or Eliots to speak only of early 20th Century masters? The Modernists possess an established track record at these prices. Burroughs has no consistent performance here, and only signed and inscribed Kerouacs of any of the Beats reside on this level on a regular basis. What about high end speculation? Does a $30,000 Naked Lunch have the growth potential of a Harry Potter first for example? The first of the Philosopher’s Stone has tremendous upside given its awesome popularity with what amounts to a developing new generation of collectors coupled with its legendary rarity (only 200 copies were not placed in libraries. How many of those survived in collectible condition?). In my opinion, the Burroughs titles in question lack the track record as well as the growth potential. It is true that the associations make these books one of a kind, but purchasing Burroughs at these prices would make the buyer something of a pioneer in this rarefied air of five-figure first editions. I would not want to make the first leap into this area. No doubt the prices of other high-end Burroughs titles would feel the effects of this precedent. Such a purchase would hasten the process of placing association copies of Burroughs as well as an unsigned Olympia Naked Lunch out of reach of 99.9% of Burroughs collectors, if they are not already. Then again the clients of Simon Finch make these types of purchases on a regular basis and Simon Finch, much more than I, knows his clients and the book market. Establishing records and setting precedents is the business of Simon Finch.
As I mentioned earlier, the Nudel copy of Naked Lunch interests me much more than Finch’s copy. The association has more punch to me. The wow quality of the Finch Naked Lunch is the dual presence of Girodias and Burroughs and not the inscription to Roger Richards. Unlike Froge, Richards does not have the same significance to Burroughs’ writing career nor as meaningful a link to Burroughs’ personal history during the Naked Lunch period. I do not want to downplay Richards’ importance to the Beats. For example, he is of monumental importance to Gregory Corso as a friend and patron, but for Burroughs he is largely a fringe figure. That said I cherish my copy of the C Press Time signed by Burroughs and Gysin, but what makes it truly special is the inscription by Ted Berrigan to Roger Richards. Richards through his generosity and friendship embodied what community is all about. Such inscriptions provide tangible evidence of his presence on and valuable role in the Beat Scene. Show me a copy of Naked Lunch inscribed by Burroughs and Girodias to Sinclair Beiles, Gysin or another figure of the Beat Hotel years like Froge, and I would be more amenable to a $30,000 price tag, as hard as that would be to swallow. That said; try finding those copies on the open market. Like letters and manuscripts, truly remarkable Burroughs associations from the early period of his career are just plain unavailable. As a result, the Froge association copies, and even the Richards, are without doubt special books — but are they worth the price of a very nice car?
These copies of Naked Lunch offered by Nudel and Finch got me thinking of another copy of Naked Lunch with a truly remarkable ownership history offered a little while back by Skyline Books. James Musser offered Timothy Leary’s copy of Burroughs’ drug classic for $7500, a fraction of $30,000. There was no inscription by Burroughs and, if I remember correctly, no annotations by Leary, but dip into Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs and you begin to see the value of this copy. There is a chapter on Burroughs meeting Leary detailing the aftershocks for these men and the world at large. The relationship of Burroughs and Leary runs deep. The importance of these two men in post-WWII Western history let alone literary history and drug culture is immense. Even though I do not have that kind of money, I thought that $7500 was not outrageous, but I have a skewed view of things that places incredible importance on books. If you go on Abebooks right now that book is no longer available. I suspect it sold. The Nudel copies of Minutes to Go and Naked Lunch have been on Abebooks seemingly forever.
In my experience, Skyline Books, while a high-end dealer to be sure, prices books to move and with wiggle room for growth as an investment. Case in point is a copy of the Olympia Ticket That Exploded inscribed by Burroughs to Gait Froge. Clearly this is not as desirable a book as Nudel’s Naked Lunch or Minutes to Go, but at $2500 you might get back your money and then some down the road. Currently signed copies of Ticket sell for over $1000 without the wonderful association. As a comparison, the Olympia Ticket inscribed by Burroughs to Ted Berrigan that blew me away a several months ago carried a price tag of $2250. If you noticed, it did not last on Abebooks long. I could be wrong, but I suspect it sold quickly
The Olympia Ticket is not as desirable as Naked Lunch, but to my mind the associations, particularly the Berrigan one, stack up. The sticker shock on these titles lacks the wow quality of the Richards and Froge copies. Maybe shocking me is the point. Many people get satisfaction from buying the most expensive item on the menu at the most exclusive restaurant. In addition, looking at a $30,000 copy of Naked Lunch makes me think that the $5000 copy of Ticket That Exploded inscribed to Simon Vinkenoog also offered by Finch is, well, cheap, to say nothing of the other offerings of that bookseller. This Ticket with all the much appreciated extras, like the letter to Vinkenoog, the Dutch translator and writer, appeals to me strongly and given the price of early Burroughs letters, the price tag does not bother me like the copy of Naked Lunch. Again in my own skewed sense of values, I can see where Finch is coming from.
Bottom line: having the most expensive Burroughs item on Abebooks is good advertising and gets the curious and deranged like me to reassess my values, loosen my purse strings, and look more closely into the other items up for sale. With dealers like Simon Finch, we are talking Robb Report and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous territory. The price tag is part of the appeal. Like I said, Simon Finch is at the top of the mountain and the bookseller did not get there by accident. Quite simply, he sells books. As much as it shocks me, this copy of Naked Lunch, good investment or not, will probably be no exception.