Nathan, elements of this discussion seem to have some parallels with a portion of another thread starting here
Regarding your should 500 people have access at any given moment question, in cases where secrets are disseminated in books, the author or publisher makes the how many decision when the print run is determined. In some cases, the market dictates the print run; in other cases and this undoubtedly happened with Harbins book the edition is decided by considerations such as secrecy, exclusiveness, value and reputation.
Like it or not, the ultimate answer that trumps all is provided by copyright laws: after the passage of a prescribed period of time, all
people should have access to the work in question.
To be sure, market pressure drives prices, but it doesnt always drive prices up
. For example, nowadays one can purchase vintage editions of certain Hoffmann and Goldston titles for less than what they sold for in the 1980s.
If the copy offered for sale by my friend Mario is unique, then every inscribed copy of Harbins book is unique. Thats not meant to say that the Harbin/Mason copy isnt a very interesting association copy. It certainly is. But to call it unique is just marketing hype. The Huntingtons copies of Sports and Pastimes
(London, 1676) and Thomas Johnsons Dainty Conceits
(London, 1630) are the only known copies and thus each may be justifiably considered unique at least until additional copies surface.
Assessing the going rate for a book can sometimes be very difficult. But for Harbins book its not so difficult, and Rick Ruhls estimate of the current price range for normal copies seems pretty accurate based on my experience. All due respect to Jim, but implying that a single auction result establishes the going rate makes little sense, especially in light of the argument that one must compare apples to apples.
The idea that one must compare apples to apples in the process of determining market price (i.e., Jims going rate) certainly seems legitimate and rational. But I would argue that if you are going to compare apples to apples, you cant stop at comparing the item being sold you must also consider the circumstances of the sale. The validity of such an approach is obvious. If a seller desperately needs money, hell often sell for a lesser price. But do we argue that such a fire sale establishes market value? Of course not. What about the person with more money than time who says I want it now, no matter what the cost. Does the high price he/she paid to immediately extract his quarry establish the going rate? Of course not.
So the circumstances of a sale are very important when it comes to questions of market value. As a side note, Id guess that if someone looked at the bid history for the copy sold by Martinkas, one would find that only two bidders were involved in the bidding past the $1,500 mark. I have often found that with auction websites, a good indicator of the fair market price of an item is the amount at which the vast majority of the bidders dropped out of the bidding.
Is Jims copy worth the $2,500 he is asking? I dont think so. But what I think doesnt matter. By arguing that $2,500 is the going rate, Jim is essentially saying that his is a fair price and reflective of the market. Since we know there is a demand for Harbins book, time and a little publicity will eventually tell us if Jim is correct. If Jim isnt able to sell his copy at his asking price, then that will tell us something about the true going rate of a copy of Harbins book in the condition that Jim describes.