Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
This piece may be old news as the Groff Auction of Bukowski and the Ronan Sale of Beat Literature took place roughly a month ago, but a look at the financial pages highlights that auctions and collectibles are very much a breaking story. A recent article in Worth magazine dealt with the role of collectibles in a financial portfolio. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal featured a piece on the rise of a new breed of collector who treat their treasures dispassionately as assets to be bought and sold like stocks. In good times or in bad, the wealthy are constantly on the lookout for ways to increase their net worth and protect the wealth they have. For many, collectibles are the perfect means to turn cash into a growing asset. With the Dow pushing over 13,000 and the strength of international spending power particularly in the Far East and Russia, more and more people possess cash on hand to spend on the rare and unusual. The art market is doing a brisk business. It seems that every month or so a new record is established for one artist or another. Case in point was a blockbuster sale at Christie’s that set the bar for Warhol, Rothko, Cindy Sherman and others. A piece from Warhol’s Death and Disaster series in 1963 sold for $71M. This absolutely obliterated the previous high for Warhol. The Journal article states that one investor is divesting a major stamp collection. Doorstops of all things were another high end sale. In the world of high-end collectibles, the auction is king and with all the action and intrigue they can have the energy of a rock and roll concert. (Coincidentally, rock and roll memorabilia is hot. A recent auction of items amassed by former road manager of The Grateful Dead, Lawrence “Ram Rod” Sturtliff, topped $1M with guitars going for six figure sums.)
Counterculture books are no exception. Last year featured the Edwin Blair Sale of Beat Literature. To my mind this was one of the great book auctions of any type in the last 10 years. On April 26th, Pacific Book Galleries presented a double bill: The Thomas Groff Bukowski collection and the Stephen Ronan Beat Literature collection. I am reminded of the turn of the millennium when it seemed that great counterculture book auctions happened on a regular basis. Swann’s consistently had a smattering of Beat books in its Modern Literature sales. Sotheby’s held the great Beat auction: selections from the Ginsberg Estate. Pacific Book Galleries offered sales of collections on Burroughs and the Beats complied by Nelson Lyon, George Fox and Robert Torgerson.
With the 50th Anniversary of Howl, On the Road and Naked Lunch just in the rearview mirror or on the horizon, we can expect a flood of interest in the Beats. It would make sense that some collectors will determine that the market is ripe for selling the fruits of their collecting pursuits. The results of the Blair Sale would seem to support such thinking. Sales topped $200,000 and the auction received news coverage in San Francisco and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the disappointing showing of the Groff and Ronan sales may scare away collectors looking to make a buck on their word hoards.
How disappointing was it? (See chart.) Over 50% (roughly 57%) of Groff’s 228 items failed to sell for the low estimate. This number is not completely out of line with previous counterculture sales at Pacific Book Auctions, but a full 15% failed to sell at all. Unfortunately, only twelve items (or roughly 5%) went over the high estimate. The Ronan Sale did not fare any better. Again 57% of Ronan’s 221 items missed the low estimate. Forty items (or 18%) went unsold. Twelve percent of the items surpassed the high estimate, but only thirteen percent fell in the estimate window. It was a depressing scene. The high number of unsold items is the most shocking to me. One would think that somebody would take a flyer on some of these items, but that was not the case. Only two of the 168 items available at the Lyon Sale were passed over.
If I am any indication, these were highly anticipated sales. When the sale was announced on the PBA Galleries web site, I definitely marked my calendar and started socking money away with the intention of spending big. The Ronan Sale was what interested me most with the potential for Burroughs items. In the end, I stayed away for a host of reasons that I will address in this piece.
Let’s look at the Groff Bukowski Sale first. From what I could tell snooping around Bukowski chat rooms, this sale generated quite a bit of interest. Groff’s collection is extensive covering the entire range of Bukowski’s career. Some highlights included the legendary first edition of At Terror Street and Agony Way with the word “Street” misspelled on the cover ($1265) as well as James Lowell of Asphodel Bookshop’s copy of Terror Street ($4313); Bukowski’s unpublished love letters to Linda King (60 in all with poems) ($69,000); tons of limited edition Black Sparrow titles with original drawings and artwork by Bukowski including a limited edition presentation copy of Women ($9200); early chapbook appearances like Steve Richmond’s copy of A Man Insane Enough to Live With Beasts ($2875); and a sprinkling of Black Sparrow broadsides. These were some of the top performers at the auction. Groff did not just skim the cream in his collecting. He gathered a solid selection of more pedestrian titles by Bukowski as well as LPs, critical work, and later little magazine appearances. The sale would seem to have something for the hardcore Bukowski collector and plenty for the low-level buyer just starting to make his mark.
So what happened? Maybe it was too much Bukowski at one time. I am referring to the 228 items at the sale but also the fact that it had been scarcely one year since the Blair Sale. Maybe the market was flooded. To my mind at the high end of the collection, the Groff sale did not match up well with the Blair Sale. Blair only offered 50 Bukowski items but it seemed that each item leaped off the catalog page. Take Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail for example. Groff’s copy was inscribed by Bukowski to bibliographer Al Fogel. This is a remarkable association. There were condition issues and this would be an underlying theme of the Groff and Ronan Sales. But Blair’s copy was inscribed by Bukowski to Jon Webb. This association is monumental to Bukowski as a writer and a person. A more important copy of this book would be hard to fathom. Importantly, Blair’s copy does not have the rusty staples as is usually found (for example in the Groff copy). Groff possessed numerous Loujon Press titles including a stellar copy of It Catches My Heart in Its Hands with a lengthy inscription ($1495), but can even this splendid example of the Webbs’ work compare to Blair’s copies of the same titles. Blair had the Loujon printing plates for God’s sake.
The Blair Sale benefited from focus and a personal touch. The Bukowski section of the collection focused on the New Orleans years and a more intimate link to the period could not be found. The collection covered that period exhaustively with beautiful items. I think the decision to sell the Bukowski collection in related pieces was a smart move. From what I understand, Blair possessed a comprehensive pamphlet and chapbook collection of Bukowski as well that was sold in its entirety in a separate transaction with an institution. Possibly, Groff should have pared down the sale to the Black Sparrow items and the limited editions in particular, but this is part of the problem with the Groff collection, it lacked a solid focus. The collection was about Bukowski but not dialed in on any particular format, period, or aspect. The collection sprawled.
Blair’s collection had personality in spades. Blair was right in the thick of it in New Orleans and his fingerprints are all over the pieces of this collection. Looking over Blair’s Bukowski items, I felt that I got a glimpse into the mind and soul of Blair as a collector and a person as well as the Webbs and Buk. The collection was sold to help support Gypsy Lou Webb who was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. The sale had a feel-good element to it that highlighted the personal relationships and literary communities around which the collection was built. These two elements along with an intense interest in the small, independent press held the Blair collection together as a cohesive whole and made it special.
A collection benefits from this cohesiveness and focus. A gathering of highspots is always nice but it lacks that mysterious it that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity crisscrossed the country searching for. The core of the Lyon show that made it special was not the signed Olympia Press and Grove titles, but the gathering of rare little magazines and small press titles made even more unusual by the presence of signatures. The complete run of My Own Mag, the highpoint of the sale in terms of price realized and maybe importance, epitomized this fact. A complete run might not be unique but the signatures of Burroughs, Corso and others truly make the item one of a kind. The signed copies of little magazines gave the Lyon Sale a unique flavor. As a whole these may not have been the highest prices items of the sale, but they were the items that were the most unusual and the best investments. The center of the Fox Sale was the San Francisco Scene. The Fox collection failed to perform as well as the Blair and Lyon Sales, but the in estimate and over estimate totals were better than Ronan and Groff. The San Francisco flavor probably helped the collection along. This focus is what inspired the collection and it definitely held it together as a whole. The Ronan collection while gathered in San Francisco lacked a similar sense of place.
Do the Linda King letters trump the letters in the Blair collection? This is a tough call. If so why did the Blair letters outperform King letters so drastically in relation to the estimate. The prices realized by the Blair letters vs the King / Groff letters reveal a truth about Pacific Book Auction’s practices. In both cases, we are dealing with some of the most important documents in Bukowski’s life and one-of-a-kind objects. Like the copy of Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, these letters form the cornerstone of Buk as a writer and a man. It should be noted that Linda King’s letters were not a part of Groff’s collection but were offered as part of the sale. I assume King saw the prices fetched by Blair’s letters and felt it was time to cash in. The King / Bukowski letters barely missed the low estimate of $70,000 selling for $69,000. Blair’s letters blasted the high reserve in many cases (See lots 9-14). This tells us that the estimates for the Groff sale were too ambitious. The general consensus among people I talked to regarding the estimates at the Groff Sale was “Good Luck.” Most felt the prices were too ambitious. Looking over the counterculture sales of the last seven to eight years at PBA Galleries, the estimates of basic items that appear on the internet sites or in booksellers’ catalogs are consistently over-hyped. I have generally found that the truly unique items like the letters or manuscripts are more reigned in. This was definitely true with the Blair sale as the letters and manuscripts soared over the estimate. I also felt that the signed copies of the rarer little magazines in the Lyon Sale were not over-priced. While several items did not reach the low estimate only two item in the entire sale did not sell at all indicating that the prices were low enough to take a shot on. It would be interesting to see what items like the inscribed Marijuana Newsletters or the Gnaoua signed by Michael McClure and Burroughs, even with its condition issues, would be estimated at now.
Why do auction houses set such high estimates? Is this really in the best interest of the client let alone the prospective buyer? I have talked this over with a handful of dealers and collectors and it seems clear that the estimates scare away potential bidders. In my case, I would have taken a flyer on several items with a lower estimate including items that did not sell at all. Are the auction houses trying to keep out the riff raff? If so they would not post the auction on eBay. The fiasco surrounding the Velvet Underground acetate shows that high-ticket collectibles are a chancy proposition on the internet auction sites. Maybe that is the reason but the high estimates keep away serious bidders as well. A low estimate would get more bidders in the game and that can only result in positive results for the auction house and the seller.
Case in point, Lots 41 and 42 of the Groff Sale, limited editions of the Bukowski / Purdy letters benefitted from the fact that multiple bidders got in the game. Letter Z of 26 lettered copies was available at the Simon Finch Bukowski catalog (along with everything else imaginable) with a Bukowski pastel for roughly $650. The copies at the Groff sale included an inked Purdy poem and some extras. It could be argued that the $1200 low estimate was reasonable. In any case it was low enough to interest multiple bidders. It only takes two to tango. These two lots are a clear case of auction fever as they sold for far more than there value ($2875 and $5463 respectively).
In the handful of auctions that I have taken part in, the urge to overbid once you are engaged is very strong. The high estimates keep this from happening by encouraging bidders not to participate. This includes those leaving bids online. The impulse is that there is no way you have a chance or that the price is too high so why bother. You can’t win if you aren’t in the game. The goal should be to create action and let the action create the higher prices. So auction houses lower your estimates. It is to your benefit. I understand that the auction house has to protect against items from selling too low but the large number of unsold items may offset the benefits of inflated “low” estimates designed to start the bidding at a higher level. The Groff sale presented many common items essential for filling out a Bukowski collection or providing a solid foundation for starting one. Unfortunately the estimates may have kept the lower level collector away from the sale. These buyers were probably the best audience for much of this material.
The Ronan Sale suffered from a lack of focus and high estimates as well. The Grove Press Naked Lunch was estimated at $1000 to $1500. I understand that this is one item in over two hundred but it highlights the outlandish side of the auction houses estimates on common collectibles compared to one of a kind items. I honestly thought it was a misprint and I hope it was.
Yet the word on the street and the auction preview revealed a more serious problem. Condition. The Ronan collection was first and foremost the working library of a Beat enthusiast. It is a blue-collar collection gathered together through the persistent search of San Francisco bookstores and the diligent pursuit of authors for signatures. Ronan used his books and gathered them for use. As a result the blue collar is faded and a little frayed. Condition was not at the top of his list of concerns in gathering the collection together and there is a sense that he bought rather indiscriminately and lacked the patience to pass over problematic copies.
I understand the tendency to waver on condition. I have been known to compromise condition on occasion but I try to do it under certain parameters. My copy of the Olympia Press Soft Machine is a case in point. I bought a truly beat copy of this book. In this condition, it would struggle to reach the $100 mark. Yet the book is signed by Maurice Girodias and inscribed by Burroughs. I decided to roll the dice and take a chance that the link between Girodias and Burroughs (which parallels the focus of my collection) would outweigh the condition. The book gives my collection some personality and I have never seen Girodias’ and Burroughs’ signatures together. I made a similar play on Floating Bear #9. Being that condition is king, these gambles might not pay off financially but they do pay off in the associative meaning and in the value of my collection as literary history.
In a collection of Beat highspots like On the Road and the Olympia Naked Lunch (basically items that are available on the open market) skimping on condition is a drastic mistake. When amassing an unsigned highspot collection, impeccable condition should be the hook that sets your collection apart. The prices realized at auction and offered in catalogs for fine signed and unsigned copies of Olympia Press Naked Lunch over the years demonstrates the wisdom of this approach. I would hesitate to take a similar chance on condition on an unsigned Olympia Press or Grove title. These books are rather common and have to be as close to fine as possible. I stretched on an unsigned Ace Junkie early in my collecting career not being aware of how common they truly are. If I could do it all over again I would hold out for a signed or truly fine copy. I did not make the same mistake with my copy of Naked Lunch.
The Ronan collection possessed less-than-stellar copies of major collectibles like On the Road, Dr. Sax and Naked Lunch. These items suffered and fell below the low estimate. In some cases, a signature saved an item in questionable condition. This was clearly the case with some of the Lyon little magazines. Given their condition, several items in the Lyon Sale would have gone unsold. But the magazines in his collection just are not available signed very often. As a result, collectors will take a shot on a suspect item even with major trouble spots like a dampstain or a library bookstamp. Or so I like to tell myself. In some isolated cases, the Ronan sale managed to have a signature and condition. In those cases, the books sold solidly. The signed copy of Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap ($2070) is a case in point. This book is notoriously fragile and tough to find in collectible condition let alone signed. Ronan hit the mark here and he was rewarded with one of the best performers at his sale
The question remains were the poor sales at the recent auction the result of a perfect storm of circumstances like condition, focus, saturation, and high estimates or is there something larger to worry about in the collecting of Beat Literature. Let’s look at Burroughs in the last five major sales at Pacific Book Auctions. (See chart.) This chart highlights that collecting “A” Burroughs items is something of a losing proposition unless you have a hook of some sort. This is true to some extent about all authors but seems especially on point with Burroughs and other Beats. Kerouac is the exception that proves the rule. Kerouac’s A items can command solid prices unsigned across the board. Kerouac items will generally sell at auction but many Burroughs titles need a little push like a signature. That is why you usually see the Burroughs items at Pacific Book Auctions signed. That extra touch makes them worth the auction houses’ while. I would advise against being a completist in collecting Burroughs and thinking that inclusion will set you over the top. Signatures and condition are a must. The prices for Gnaoua, Ace Junkies, any Olympia title, Grove titles and Roosevelt after Inauguration over the last decade at auction and at rare book dealers fuel this argument.
The fate of Grove titles at auction and in bookstores suggests several points about the Burroughs market. In his comments on the internet, Ken Lopez states that the mid-level rarities are drying up on the eBay and other electronic sources. We could be heading for a new scarcity of mid-level rarities. Granted I need tougher items in my collection now, but around the turn-of-the-century high quality Burroughs items seemed to be everywhere. Just look at some of the stuff I reported on my old website: the William Burroughs Cyber Library. The increasing prices for signed Grove titles particularly Soft Machine highlight this trend. Signed copies of these titles are just not turning up on a regular basis. Picking up these items at auction over the last five or ten years might not have been a bad bet. They were undervalued. Yet the key is signatures and condition. Given the larger print runs of some of the Grove titles these factors are a must. They, like most Burroughs titles, need a hook.
In fact the Burroughs collector needs a hook in the actual formation of a collection. Being a generalist or plucking highspots are not enough. As I have mentioned on the Bunker before, letters and manuscripts are gold. These items have proven again and again at auction, on eBay and at rare bookstores to perform incredibly well. Unfortunately, the well has run dry on these items. Burroughs manuscripts and letters will continue to trickle to the market over the years but with the Jackson Sale to NYPL the hope of getting a substantial piece of the Word Hoard is over. But those who were lucky enough to get ahold of these pieces have a valuable asset. Building around those isolated manuscripts and letters is essential. For example if you have a letter or group of letters that mention a certain aspect of Burroughs’ career, exploit that asset. The Blair sale offered a manuscript of Burroughs’ Oui article from 1973. That letter could be the centerpiece of a Burroughs or Beat men’s magazine collection. A letter discussing the rejection of Naked Lunch by Olympia Press from 1957 is still in private hands. In addition the Blair Sale offered a section of Soft Machine. These letters could form the basis along with catalogs, magazines, contracts, and Beat Hotel items like photographs of Burroughs in Paris or Olympia Press collection.
The focus on letters need not be so expensive. Letters and memorabilia from the Kansas years are still available. This would include artwork. As time goes on, the time at Lawrence will get the study and treatment that it deserves. Currently it is a largely unexplored period in Burroughs’ creative output. A solid collection encompassing ephemera, memorabilia, books, and artwork could be gathered together. The key is focus and specialization. On a the highest level, it worked for Nelson Lyon and Edwin Blair. On a lower level, such specialization will makes your Burroughs collection stand out by amassing undervalued and underappreciated items. Being a completist in these less publicized areas is more fun and more affordable than battling the crowds bidding on the highspots.
Clearly according to periodicals like the Wall Street Journal, collecting is as popular as ever and a great way to diversify one’s investments, but we have to look at who these new collectors are. According to the Journal, they are young Wall Street types. One of the hottest new collectibles is toy banks. Are these the type of guys that are going to be interested in the Beats and particularly Burroughs? The anti-establishment, counterculture stance of the Beats will probably not appeal to these new collectors. Yet historically the Beats have appealed to several generations of high-end collectors like the rock and roll market of the 1960s, the baby boomer generation, the Young Hollywood set, and the internet millionaires. Anytime money or power merges with anti-establishment sentiment the Beats and Burroughs will be a good bet. Is it any wonder the Clinton and Tech Boom years were such glory days for Beat collectibles? The pendulum is always swinging. I would guess that a new generation of collector will develop that will look not to toy banks, but to Beat memorabilia as a passion and an investment. Given the current political and financial climate that is generating new, young collectors, we are in a bit of a lull.
Of course, this focuses on the United States as the source of the boom in collectibles. Clearly the former Soviet Union and the Far East are the new hotspots for collectors. I am unaware whether the Beat Generation has made a huge splash in these new centers of wealth. I don’t see why not. Japan has proven to be infatuated with all things American for years including counterculture items like rock and roll and jazz. The Beats and the counteculture provided a major source of inspiration for the fight for freedom of speech, print and human rights in the Cold War countries, China and Vietnam. Writers such as Allen Ginsberg were published clandestinely, passed around, and read in whispers. Beat writers traveled to these areas as they thawed out and reached westward. The question remains if the newly wealthy will collect writers that challenged consumerism, mass market proliferation, and unfettered global capitalism.
But as one dealer stated to me, how is the next generation of collector going to find out about and appreciate the small press items that make up much of Burroughs’ and the Beat’s publications? In a digital age, how are the new generation of collectors going to be drawn to the world of mimeo and letterpress, surrounded as they are by the typographical wizardry of glossy magazines and the internet? It is an interesting question and for resale value I would like to think that the retro quality of these publications will capture the imaginations of those interested in design and the book as object. Everything comes back into fashion. This much seems certain: libraries were, are, and will be interested in such early Beat works as important documents in the history of 20th Century print. Yet as Nicholson Baker makes clear in The Double Fold, the question remains whether they will want or need hard copies in an age of electronic reproduction. Quite possibly, if these books and magazines are not relegated to the dustbin of history, they will be relegated to the dustbin behind the library as one lucky reader of RealityStudio found out. If so I hope I am there to find them and place them on my shelf.
The Groff and Ronan sales raise many questions about the future of Beat collectibles, but like the current real estate crisis the astute collector is in this game for the long haul despite the wheeling and dealing of the new breed of collector. As the Wall Street Journal states, a Burroughs collection should be treated like a stock deal. Buy undervalued properties like the Kansas Years or develop unique and comprehensive portfolios. If you are going to build around an Olympia Press Naked Lunch buy wisely and complement it with a different focus than a highspot or “A” list collection. Hopefully I will never have to depend on my collection to reward me financially. The thrill of the search and the use of the fruits of my labor are repayment enough. Yet this is small consolation when an object close to your heart slips out of your hands for less than you hoped.