A few reflections on David Levy’s comments in the preceding post . . .

I really liked David Levy’s comments in the preceding post.  The comments definitely have the ring of authority and obviously come from a thoughtful and experienced collector.  Below are a few more or less random reflections on what David said — they are not intended to qualify anything that he stated, but simply to say a few of the things that have occurred to me.

Re the paragraph beginning, “It is certainly true . . .”

If you search on eBay for books published several hundred years ago, you can easily find them.  If you search for things like . . .

edition 1680

. . . you may find listed a few such books.

And indeed, while a certain percentage of such books (not necessarily books found using the above search) may be in remarkable condition, the main problem for the collector is that almost none of the books (regardless of condition) are even remotely on subjects related to home amusements, sports, pastimes, card games, and the like.

And in fact, it is my impression that when you find any old books on (say) magic for sale, they are generally not in very good shape.  I am talking about books from (say) 1860 and earlier.  This is pretty much in accord with the things David said.

Even later books are often hard to find in nice condition.  Now, on eBay right now is a pretty nice copy of Robert-Houdin’s The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, translated by Professor Hoffmann.  (Update:  The auction ended on June 24, 2013, and the item went unsold at about $380.)  And maybe a year or two ago I purchased a copy that was probably in near-fine condition.  But it appears to me that the norm for that book — “1878” edition — is “substandard condition.”  That’s just one example.  Hoffmann’s Conjurer Dick seems to be difficult to find in really nice condition.  Hoffmann’s Tips for Tricyclists?  Forget it.  Same with Hoffmann’s Home Gymnastics.

Added note re that copy of The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic that went unsold . . .

Here is a link.  For some reason, it has only 21 views as of now — a sad commentary on the state of magic book-collecting in general.  It’s not a perfect copy, but it is quite nice.  I think the $380 price was very fair — not a low price, but not a high price.  Arguments can be made that The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic is the most important book in English on magic.  People should have been competing avidly for such nice copy.

As I mentioned, I now have a gorgeous copy of the book.  In my earlier collecting days, I had four 1878 copies, which I parted with a long time ago.  One, in blue cloth, was in terrible condition.  One, in green cloth, was fairly nice, but had a bit of a gouge in the top of the front cover.  One, in kind of reddish-brown cloth, was in very bad shape, though I believe it had a gift inscription (not by the translator) from 1878, which was interesting bibliographically.  And then, I had one in brownish cloth that was a pretty nice copy.  If I had to guess, I might guess that 75% of the copies “out there” are not in “collector’s condition.”

You might think that magic-collectors would be excited over an early copy in nice shape.  But no, people would rather have a  falling-apart copy of the first edition of The Expert at the Card Table than a beautiful example of the first edition of Robert-Houdin’s magnum opus.  Again, a sad commentary of what is going on in the magic-collecting world.  (Note: I can’t swear that the Robert-Houdin book is a first, because I think there were at least two printings with the date 1878 — but it’s not a major problem, given the defective state of knowledge of the book’s history.  All things being equal, I would want a copy with all edges gilt — and that might actually be the most obvious defining feature, but there is some speculation involved there as to the meaning of the gilt edges.)

Re David’s paragraph beginning, “There are two differences with the older books.”

A corollary to this is that almost all rebindings of later books, from at least 1860 onward — at least in England and the United States — are going to make a book less desirable to the collector, when compared to an otherwise identical book in the original binding.  Exceptions do exist.  Professor Hoffmann had a copy of Modern Magic rebound into an interleaved copy in two volumes.  It is now at The Magic Circle, having passed through Stanley Collins’s hands, and later, Roland Winder’s.

Or maybe Hoffmann received an unbound copy from Routledge, so that the binding was not a “rebinding.”  This almost seems likely, since it appears that not all copies of the first edition were bound at one time — at least one copy exists in what one might call the second-edition binding.  I believe Leslie R. Cole not only possessed such a copy, but was the first to notice that feature — I’m not sure, but I think Leslie told me those things himself.  (He was not bragging, but was simply telling me what happened.)

A few general remarks . . .

Of course, all of this raises some issues.  One might say, well, what if one had to choose between a beat-up copy of a book, versus a rebound copy that is otherwise in fine condition.  I guess it all depends.  If you are talking about a fair or poor copy in the original binding, versus an otherwise fine copy in a new binding, I would normally choose the latter, since — don’t kid yourself — the fair copy is not in collectible condition anyway.

I may get into this further in the future, because the preceding paragraph is a bit of a simplification.

—Tom Sawyer

June 28, 2013

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