Book Descriptions: "Rare" Etc.

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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 06:18 PM

Hi Folks:

Well nobody seemed to be interested in my prior e-mail (under "Historians' Guide to Conjuring") where I asked about who has certain kinds of books, so here goes a new topic near and dear to my heart.

Over the years I had several interesting conversations with fellow collectors on the meanings of "rare." Book dealers love to use the term.

I'm wondering what you folks think about the use of this term.

I'll start off by saying that I think there are very few rare books out there and by saying that in my opinion most people completely misuse the terms "rare" and "scarce." To me, a book is rare if there are very few (maybe less than 20?) copies which exist in the world. I distinguish "rare" with "rare in commerce," the latter term being my description to account for a book which "rarely" is offered for sale. In other words, a book which is rare in commerce may have been printed in an edition of 5,000, but because everybody loves the book, they don't want to part with it. And use of the term "rare" should not be confused with "valuable." Complete sets of Bob Albo's Classic Magic series command prices in the thousands, but they're not rare. When I was 12 years old, I typed up about ten copies of a little pamphlet and gave it to my friends. That pamphlet is certainly rare, but it sure as heck ain't valuable.

So those are my provocative thoughts. Anybody care to criticize my views or offer their opinions?
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Postby Brad Henderson » 04/29/04 07:12 PM

I once read a biblio-guide which had precise definitions of rare. I believe rare was considered to be less than 5 known copies. Kind of puts a lot of the ebay ads we see in the magic section in an entirely different light, no?

I wish we could come to some common agreement, but the situation is paradoxical. It is those who are ignorant that continue to make such nomenclature errors, and I don't think ignorant people are the kind to devote effort into reading up on such concerns.

I like the idea behind the term "scarce in commerce," as I think it truthfully reflects the situation.

But yes, you are correct. Sellers of magic greatly overuse such terms.

Once we get things straight on this account, maybe we can get them to understand what "mint" really means.
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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 08:15 PM

Okay, so far Brad, it's you and me (although I'd really like to hear some contrary views!). Funny that you mention use of the word "mint" 'cause I had originally started to write on that topic too, but thought I'd save that for another thread.

Back to the "rare" discussion for a moment. It seems to me, as you point out, that dealers also ruin the word - and the sad thing is that most dealers are indeed well informed. So they get two thumbs down for leading the buyer astray. I suppose we have to give them a little leeway for putting sizzle in the sell, but geez, calling "Cues for Collectors" rare is going too far.

The same criticism can be made against dealers in using the term "mint," "very fine," etc. But of course, the same thing can also be said for the layperson. One primary problem is that we all tend to rate condition in relation to age. For example, we might see a book which is 150 tears old and say "wow, that's near mint." But what we're really saying is "geez, I'm surprised at how well this book has survived and it must be near mint considering its age." The problem with that is that everybody has their own idea of how old books should look. You've seen it on Ebay, where some antiques dealer comes up with a really tattered copy of some 19th century magic books and rates it in "very good" condition.

Basically, unlike use of the term "rare," where reasonable people can differ (you said 5 copies, I suggested 20), it IS possible to have a fairly objective standard for book condition if everybody agrees that age HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RATING CONDITION. In other words, a "near mint" book published in 2001 should look the same as one published in 1901 - or 1501. Generally, the more reptuable book dealers, such as members of the ABAA, are much more conservative in their descriptions than most in the magic trade.

Years ago, AB Bookman proposed standards of condition rating for book dealers. In fact, most of the high-quality book dealers adhere to these standards. I don't have my copy of these standards handy, but found them on the IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association) website and have copied and pasted them here, with due credit to IOBA. Basically, what follows are the AB Bookman standards as slightly modified by IOBA:

[begin quote]

(Condition normally shown as __/__, i.e., F/F, denoting first book & then dustjacket condition)

AS NEW (AN) or VERY FINE (VF) or MINT (M): Without faults or defects, unread, in the same immaculate condition in which it was published (Note: very few "new" books qualify for this grade, as many times there will be rubs/scuffs to the dustjackets from shipping, or bumped lower spine ends/corners from shelving).

FINE (F): Approaches the above, but not crisp. May have been carefully read and dustjacket may have been slightly rubbed or spine ends slightly bumped from shelving/shipping, but no real defects or faults.

(NOTE: From here on, there may be "+" and "-" in a grade, which will mean that it is above the grade noted but not quite to the next higher grade for "+", and that it is below the grade noted but not quite to the next lower grade for "-".

NEAR FINE: Also used, although not contained in Bookman's Weekly definitions, meaning a book or dustjacket approaching FINE but with a couple of very minor defects or faults.

VERY GOOD: A used book showing some small signs of wear on either binding or dustjacket. Any defects/faults must be noted.

GOOD: The average used and worn book that has all pages or leaves present. Any defects must be noted.

FAIR: A worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title page, etc. (which must be noted). Binding, dustjacket, etc. may also be worn. All defects/faults must be noted.

POOR or READING COPY: A book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. May be soiled, scuffed, stained, or spotted, and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.

EX-LIBRARY: Must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.

BOOK CLUB: Must always be noted as such no matter what the condition of the book.

BINDING COPY: A book in which the pages or leaves are perfect but the binding is very bad, loose, off, or non-existent.

Always, if issued with one, the lack of a dustjacket or slipcase should be noted."

[end of quote]


As you can see, if these standards were followed by us and by dealers in magic books, the descriptions on Ebay and in catalogs would be very different indeed. But all this makes sense to me - after all, what are the chances that a 100 year book is truly in mint or very fine condition? How is it possible that some guy on Ebay can put a picture up of a totally tattered dj with sunning on the spine and say the book is "mint" with slight wear to the dj? Ha!

When I sell my duplicates to people, I try to follow the AB Bookman standards. Usually, the recipients are pleasantly surprised -- and that's the way I like it.

I think that's enough food for thought for now. Okay, you people, come on and argue!
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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 08:32 PM

I once sent a comment to an Ebay seller who was advertising some Taro cards as "extremely rare". Thinking maybe he was just a newbie,I mentioned to him that they could be picked up new in almost any major bookstore or any shop that stocks tarot cards.
He sent me back a scathing reply saying he was using "marketing". Bah.
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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 09:50 PM

"Rare" or "Extremely Rare" are what the books I am currently seeking are. "Rare" is apparently a transient condition as once I obtain the desired tomes, they are no longer rare and are for sale everywhere.

My guess is that the book sellers use a secret "communication network" to determine what I am seeking and use this info to classify the "condition" of the books being sought.

Does this make sense?

As for "mint", I've bought brand new books with crumpled corners etc. They were mint from the dealer - hopefully not from the printer/binder. This handling by middlemen might affect the "mint" definition. The books were unread or mint based being brand new; but not how I would define mint.

Condition of any item for sale is difficult to determine under the best of situations; but sellers do often arbitrarily apply terms to describe items. Standardization of these terms would be difficult to enforce or even voluntarily accomplish. Too much is open to interpretation by the evaluator.

Also, I have seen items for sale in mint condition that get destroyed in shipping due to poor packing. What was once mint is instantly changed into poor condition - though still new.

The best way to buy such items might be on approval. Of the many hundreds of magic books in my private collection, I have only had to return 3 in 45+ years. Reputable dealers will work with you on this - if they know you are a serious collector. Ebay sellers are a very different animal and any standardization of terms might well be impossible. I will say that I have never been disappointed by an ebay magic book purchase - all were described very accurately. If you have questions about an item for sale on ebay, you can always ask the seller for more info or better images. If the seller does not cooperate, you might want to avoid that sale.
Jim
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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 09:51 PM

"Rare" or "Extremely Rare" are what the books I am currently seeking are. "Rare" is apparently a transient condition as once I obtain the desired tomes, they are no longer rare and are for sale everywhere.

My guess is that the book sellers use a secret "communication network" to determine what I am seeking and use this info to classify the "condition" of the books being sought.

Does this make sense?

As for "mint", I've bought brand new books with crumpled corners etc. They were mint from the dealer - hopefully not from the printer/binder. This handling by middlemen might affect the "mint" definition. The books were unread or mint based being brand new; but not how I would define mint.

Condition of any item for sale is difficult to determine under the best of situations; but sellers do often arbitrarily apply terms to describe items. Standardization of these terms would be difficult to enforce or even voluntarily accomplish. Too much is open to interpretation by the evaluator.

Also, I have seen items for sale in mint condition that get destroyed in shipping due to poor packing. What was once mint is instantly changed into poor condition - though still new.

The best way to buy such items might be on approval. Of the many hundreds of magic books in my private collection, I have only had to return 3 in 45+ years. Reputable dealers will work with you on this - if they know you are a serious collector. Ebay sellers are a very different animal and any standardization of terms might well be impossible. I will say that I have never been disappointed by an ebay magic book purchase - all were described very accurately. If you have questions about an item for sale on ebay, you can always ask the seller for more info or better images. If the seller does not cooperate, you might want to avoid that sale.
Jim
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Postby Guest » 04/29/04 10:58 PM

Jim:

I agree with you on the difficulty of ensuring that people use a certain standard of book description. As Brad hinted, many people may not care, and unfortuntely, there are plenty out there who know better but STILL don't care.

But at least talking about it does a couple of things: first it raises awareness that there actually ARE book grading standards out there that are fairly objective (if not perfectly so); second, it might encourage buyers to be a little more demanding. Knowledge is power, as they say.

You raise an interesting point, though, with your observation that you have been almost always happy with your purchases due to your care and diligence. As to your experience that all descriptions of books you have purchased on Ebay were very accurate, all I can say is your are one lucky hombre!

Generally, I have found Ebay sellers to be sincere and well meaning, but, alas, the ones I am skeptical of are some of the very ones we see over and over again in the conjuring section. Apparently, as with the Ebay seller Kim described, a little hype and a little deception--er, misdirection--doesn't seem to bother some Ebay sellers of conjuring items. Hopefully, as buyers become more experienced and become insulted by the crappy, inaccurate and/or deceptive descriptions, they will bring some of the sellers into line. Then again, what was that famous saying of Barnum's?

Lest one think I am criticizing all Ebay magic sellers, I am not. Like you, I've had some great experinces on Ebay.
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Postby Guest » 04/30/04 12:17 AM

Interesting discussion. I've noticed that a lot of books on e-Bay are described as "rare", and figure that they probably mean something like "hard to find" or "not often found secondhand", as you suggest. This would apply not only to things like Roterberg's New Era Card Tricks but also more recent books that plenty of people have but no one wants to part with. With so many books quickly going out of print now and becoming "highly sought-after", the description "rare" is presumably used to attract the attention of the people who look out for these things out so they can say they have something that not many others have.

Incidentally, I liked the phrase "a book which is 150 tears old" in the third post in this thread. Is this a typo or another way of rating the condition of a book?
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Postby Guest » 04/30/04 12:22 AM

Originally posted by Clay Shevlin:
Jim:

<Snip> As to your experience that all descriptions of books you have purchased on Ebay were very accurate, all I can say is your are one lucky hombre! <snip>
<snip>
Lest one think I am criticizing all Ebay magic sellers, I am not. Like you, I've had some great experinces on Ebay.
Clay;
One way to get honest descriptions on ebay is to buy from guys you know. Many sellers are here on The Genii Forum or are even respected names in the magic world. Many sellers are customers of mine. We have built up a trust that seems to work just fine.

I will also point out that I will buy books for different reasons. Some books I want to be perfect and are bought as collectibles, as well as, for information. Heck, some books are just bought for the artwork. Other times I merely want a routine or other info from the book and condition is the least of my concern on these items. It must also be realized that not everything will be in mint condition. Sometimes near fine or even good will be the best that you can locate (especially if cost and/or time are critical).

The types of guys like Kim describes are not people I'd be buying from anyway. Those guys will never be selling anything I'd want.

If I am seeking a magic book, I'll shoot off an email to a few magic book dealers that I regularly buy from to see if a copy is available. If they have more than one copy, I can select the condition I want. Ebay prices can be all over the chart for the same item - depending on how many people want the item that day. Dealer prices will tend to be more steady and often more reasonable. Ebay can be great for odd ball items or a fluke special buy.
Jim
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Postby Guest » 04/30/04 06:28 AM

A book by noted collector Ed Heyl called "Cues for Collectors" discusses the different adjectives to describe books on the rarity. Check with Magic Inc. or Denny Lee.
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Postby Guest » 04/30/04 08:28 AM

Edwin's observations seem quite logical and realistic. In essence perhaps the term "rare" is used to attract attention, much like "lowest price in the century" or some other selling device. My "150 tears old" was originally a typo, but I liked it and left it in!

Jim's point about buying for a variety of reasons is right on target in my opinion, and it may go a long way in helping to explain why many buyers don't really care about condition or the factual honesty of a seller - they just want the information, and so long as it's there, they bid or buy. For me, being a picky SOB and having fallen in love with books qua books when I was 11 or 12, I still like to get the best copy I can, no matter what. Part of that desire relates to my work on the second edition of Historians' Gudie to Conjuring, in which I will provide color pictures of every known (to me) variant of every historical, bibliographical and biographical title concerning conjuring - so naturally I want to have pictures of books which look as close as possible to when they were new.

It is possible to combine condition description with rarity description and come up with a meaningful statement. For instance, I have a stunning copy of Robert-Houdin's Memoirs, undated but probably printed around 1900. It looks very fresh and would rate as a very fine copy. As such and given its age, it is probably safe to say that a copy of that book in that condition is scarce, or perhaps even rare.

Finally, for those who love conjuring books and book collecting, I'd like to echo Jarrett's comments about Cues for Collectors - great series of articles by Edgar Heyl compiled into one little volume.
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Postby Guest » 04/30/04 02:16 PM

Some things are supply scarce, and others are demand scarce. Before "Strong Magic" was reprinted, it was demand scarce. Tamariz's books still are. Neither are particularly rare by any reasonable standard.

As far as condition, I like a line used when I first started paying real money for collectibles (this was grass-cutting money when I was 12, a long time ago). "If there are two of an item, and you can tell one from the other, then _at least_ one of them isn't mint."

People who grade collectibles professionally (coins, trading cards, comics) have taken the perfectly good term "mint" and ruined it with variations like "gem mint", "near mint", "pristine mint", "mint +", "mint or better", etc.
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Postby Guest » 05/01/04 12:44 PM

Originally posted by Brad Henderson:
I once read a biblio-guide which had precise definitions of rare. I believe rare was considered to be less than 5 known copies.
I'm guessing Brad was thinking of the scholarly and precise BIBLIOGRAPHY OF CONJURING PERIODICALS IN ENGLISH: 1791-1983 by Jim Alfredson and George Daily. In refering to the scarity of complete files of periodicals, they use the following definitions:
Unique - Only one known file; rare - five or less known files; scarce - twenty-five or less known files; uncommon - seventy-five or less known files; common - more than seventy-five known files.
Although refering to complete files of periodicals, the same terms could easily be applied to books. I believe H. Adrian Smith has a good essay on this topic in the compilation of his articles issued by Brown University. I recall that he pointed out that books paradoxically become less rare over time, as additional copies are discovered, though they may become less available as institutions snatch them up. (The exception would be if known copies were being destroyed, making them more scarce...)

As an example of an eBay description likely having an effect on the final price, a copy of Robert Walker's TRICKS FROM THE TREE described by the seller as "hard to find" sold last week for $144.50 (ebay item #2239848957). We had nearly two dozen new copies in our inventory (searchable online at our website) for only $15 at that time. I'd like to think our website is not too "hard to find" and use as a research tool for someone interested in conjuring literature, but perhaps I'm naive. We often see items we have in stock new (such as Goldstein's VERBAL CONTROL) selling on ebay used for several times the new price. We recently had the strange experience ourselves of selling a used copy of Cameron's CASTLE DRACULA MENTALISM on eBay (starting at $1 with no reserve) for $54.87, when we have new copies in stock and listed on our website at the published price of only $30! Of course, this "auction fever" pricing is one reason we choose to offer certain items on eBay, rather than simply price them and place them on our shelves where they'll likely sit for several months before finding a buyer at the lower price...
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 05/01/04 01:34 PM

Dick,

For what its worth, your site is the first place I go when considering bidding on a book on eBay, so thank you very much! I must say Im shocked by the price of the Walker book. I had no problem finding a copy when I needed a replacement about a year ago. (Though I think it cost me $20dang it!) God bless the savvy seller, whoever it was (I think I could get pretty close with a guess or two). But I can feel the pain of the buyer: Ive overpaid in the past; particularly on one book that ended up being reprinted less than a month after my purchase for less than 50% of what I paid. The only redemption I had was that I did get a first edition (with undisclosed bumped cornerswoo-hoobuyer beware, eh?).

These days Im more inclined to go directly to guys like you, John Cannon, Andy Greget and George Daily. In fact I just picked up a two-volume set of The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin (1859) from George at what I think was a wonderful price. I can only imagine what they could have fetched on eBay, so Im very happy George chooses to sell directly at fair prices. Of course, that being said, Im still not completely cured of my eBay addiction. I recently picked up a couple of Garcia books for less than they have been in the past, but probably a tad more than they will be next time they can be found at auction: the Garcia wave seems to be subsiding a bit, but they continue to beahemhard to find.

Dustin
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Postby Guest » 05/01/04 02:08 PM

Hey Richard,

First off, I love your idea of starting expensive books out at a bargain on Ebay. I wouldn't have the nerve to do it, but your faith in the market has been proven time and again. Kudos to you.

Your observations on the sometimes huge disparity in prices on Ebay versus more private means of selling is appropos to this conversation. Though you didn't say it outright, I will: some buyers out there are ignorant and sellers on Ebay are only happy to take advantage of this fact. Some buyers think that Ebay is the only way to buy magic books, so they resign themsevles to this 'fact.' Of course, 'auction fever' does play a part in high prices (I've gotten the fever sometimes) sometimes. I guess some buyers are also lazy - they don't want to put the work in to find what they want - or they are not patient. There have been times I have been lazy and/or impatient, but usually I've been willing to dig or to wait, and 90% of the time I am rewarded.

The point of all of this is that knowledge is power. Collectors who take the time to learn about what they are collecting and why what they collect is important are generally "smarter" buyers. They learn what "mint" and "rare" really means - or at least over time they learn to be justifiably wary of the use of those terms.

In a selfish sense, I'm happy that some buyers are lazy or ignorant -- that just leaves fewer people to troll in the same wtaers I do. In another sense, it's fun to expand the brotherhood and share what you know, which I like to do with people who have a sincere interest.

Hey Dustin: you paid half of what I paid George for the same set several years ago. George thinks the market has taken a dump so that's why his prices are so good right now. Oh well!
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Postby Brad Henderson » 05/01/04 03:59 PM

Also, there are "traditional" book dealers who believe magic books to be a commodity and sell them for outrageous prices. One of these dealers is/was a magician. On his site he had a Goldston Annual in average condition for $750. I called and offered to sell him my duplicates at a fraction of that price, but he balked. He also had the Vernon Revelations book for $300 at a time it was still available from Caveney. I have also seen dealers at book fairs get a magic book and price it in the $200 range because they belitve magic to be worth that to clients. So clearly, their fishing expeditions work occasionally or else they wouldn't get using that lure, no?

Finally, it also helps to get to know a seller's standards. If Greget or Cannon (and my recent experiences with Dailey have indicated this applies to him as well, though I have only bought a couple of things from him) say something is Mint, you can be sure it is "biblio-quality" mint. (Kenna Thompson is the same way when it comes to apparatus). But there is one very well known magic dealer who will tell you something is mint, and it could have a torn page, or loose spine. Thankfully, he always accepts returns, but his grading system is a bit looser than most. Not saying not to do business with someone like that (I still buy from them all the time), just come to learn what they mean when they say what they do.
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Postby Guest » 05/02/04 06:14 AM

I'm not a real expert on what books, but I know a good deal when I see it on ebay, or at a convention. I have a few in my library that would definately be considered rare; Revelations; Expert Card Technique-3rd edition with the extra chapters.
Then you get into Autographed books. Of course you can go to a lecture and buy so and so's latest book and have it signed, I wouldn't really call that rare. Probably the rarest piece I own is an a copy of "The last word on Cards". The inscription reads. To my good friend, Walter Gibson, Best Wishes, Rupert Steele.
I think it's really neat to own a copy that was owned by a magic luminary. Like Skinner's copy of Erdnase etc.
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Postby Guest » 05/02/04 12:13 PM

Pepka: what qualifies as "rare" in your mind? How many copies constitute a rare title? As readers will glean from this thread, the notion of what is rare and what isn't varies widely, and probably always will. I vote for a conservative use of "rare" with the idea in mind that rarity has nothing to do with desirability. Copies of the first edition of Erdnase aren't rare, but they are extremely desirable, etc.

You raise an interesting point when you discuss autographed books. Some autographed books are not rare at all, in my opinion. There must be several dozen copies of any Dai Vernon title which he has autographed. Yet, there may be only one copy of a particlua title he inscribed to Lewis Ganson, the guy wrote wrote several books on Vernon's tricks. I suppose you could say that Vernon's autograph to Ganson for a particular title is rare.
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Postby Guest » 05/02/04 12:14 PM

For those interested in understanding the descriptions used by book sellers to describe condition - let me recommend the wonderful book by Ronald Searles entitled: Slightly Foxed - but Still Desirable, Ronald Seale's Wicked World of Book Collecting.

Very funny cartoon art work depicting the truth behind the terms.

For you history buffs, there is also a magic connection between Searles and the act of the Piddingtons (Sydney and Lesley, famous radio mentalism team from Australia). Searles was a captive of the Japanese in WWII in the Changi POW camp along with Sydney Peddington and Russell Braddon, where Peddington and Braddon worked out their mentalism routine. Searle's pencil sketches made in the camp appear in the book, The Piddingtons, by Russell Braddon.
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Postby Guest » 05/02/04 10:20 PM

Originally posted by Richard Hatch:

I recall that he pointed out that books paradoxically become less rare over time, as additional copies are discovered . . .
This happens in other fields of collectibles, as well. The famous Honus Wagner baseball card which Wayne Gretzky paid hundreds of thousands for, was at one time though to be truly rare -- maybe five copies known. Now it is generally accepted that there are 50 or more extant in collections.
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Postby Guest » 05/03/04 01:03 PM

Question to Steve Shain: Is Slightly Foxed currently in print and available? I attempted a quick web search for it without success.

At the risk of getting slightly off topic - Alibris (of all places) has an extensive glossary of terminology used by book sellers and collectors. Interesting reading. Unfortunately, the term "rare" is only vaguely defined. But for the curious (or for those who are, like myself, trivially minded) such things as "offprint","paste-down" are clearly described.
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Postby Guest » 05/03/04 07:13 PM

I would like a rating system that reflects a books availability. As was mentioned earlier one that is based on availability in commerce would be useful. Of course as has been pointed out availability can change greatly over time. If you rate a book rare because only five copies are known, but all are in public libraries, then the book is really unobtainable. Not of much use to a collector. Such a system would be problematic, but an interesting challenge to tackle.

So what is rare? If you want to do it numerically, just pick a number and stick with it. A more analytical approach would be to analyze auction and dealer catalogs and see how many times an item turns up. Now that would be a job, but one could build a good picture of what is rare or just uncommon.

Just a few random thoughts.

Gary Hunt
garyhunt@mindspring.com
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Postby Guest » 05/05/04 09:08 AM

A few replies for this thread:

Steve Shain's comment linking a book on books with the magic world was fun to read. There is a litte point about first printings of Russ Braddon's The Piddingtons that some of you may not know: the first printing gives the illustrator's name as ROBERT Searle on the title page - not Ronald as it should be. This mistake was corrected in later printings.

For those of you who search Alibris on the web, you should know that Alibris searches for books already on the internet, markes them up some 10-15% and then sells them - so Alibris is not the best source for well-priced books on the internet.

Gary's lament that there is no standard for the term 'rare' has been touched on in this thread and it seems that, unless there is a concerted effort, it won't happen, for the reasons mentioned herein. But Gary raises an excellent point about the value of old catalogs and that's the reason I collect them - to guage relative rarity and market availability of a given title. A study of old catalogs for a title will reveal quite a bit about how many coies were printed or how desirable a book is. And if you pay attention to the descriptions in a catalog, you might find information which is difficult to obtain otherwise. For example, one of the scarcest of Thurston titles is Thomas Worthington's Recollections of Howard Thurston, a nicely produced book published in 1938 by the author. An old Edgar Heyl catalog tells us that only about 205 copies were printed. Heyl was generally very reliable so his description of the print run is a nice tidbit indeed.
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Postby Magiphile » 05/22/04 11:12 AM

Clay (and anyone else) let me give a hypothetical situation, and ask if the how you would classify the following, using 5 copies as "Rare":
There are 6 known copies (scarce) of a boo.
Four are in libraries.
Two are in private collections.
One of the private collections (although not 100% certain is actually a Foundation, will become part of a Foundation or may come up for sale or auction.
One copy is definately held privately and WILL come up for auction.
As there are only 2 copies (and possibly only one) that are "freely" held is this book considered "Rare", "Scarce" or "Possibly Unique in Commerce"?
The assumption here is that the library copies will remain in their dusty boxes and never be sold or put up for auction.
I personally don't know the answer as to how you would classify this hypothetical book but, I do know that a situation like this would only add to the confusion of classifying books. I'd welcome your thoughts on this.
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Postby Guest » 05/22/04 06:27 PM

Originally posted by Clay Shevlin:
Pepka: what qualifies as "rare" in your mind? How many copies constitute a rare title? As readers will glean from this thread, the notion of what is rare and what isn't varies widely, and probably always will. I vote for a conservative use of "rare" with the idea in mind that rarity has nothing to do with desirability. Copies of the first edition of Erdnase aren't rare, but they are extremely desirable, etc.

You raise an interesting point when you discuss autographed books. Some autographed books are not rare at all, in my opinion. There must be several dozen copies of any Dai Vernon title which he has autographed. Yet, there may be only one copy of a particlua title he inscribed to Lewis Ganson, the guy wrote wrote several books on Vernon's tricks. I suppose you could say that Vernon's autograph to Ganson for a particular title is rare.
These types of copies have specific descriptions in the rare book world - and are considered unique copies.

Some examples: a copy from the author to the person he dedicates the book to - a "dedication copy", is probably the only one - it is unlikely that the author gifted the dedicatee with more than one copy. An "autographed" copy is different and less valuable than an "inscribed" copy, which mentions the recipient by name, and often included some personal note.

So, a copy of the Vernon Book of Magic, to Lewis Ganson, "Thank you for doing the work I would never have done, your excellent writing has made this book a reality for me, your friend and subject, Dai" is different from a copy inscribed to Faucett Ross, "To my dear friend Faucett, without your help I could never have done this book, your friend always, Dai" is different from a copy to "Gary Jenkins, thanks for buying my book", is different from a simple "Dai Vernon".

"Association" copies are a whole other thing. I once had a photograph of Robinson Jeffers, the California poet, taken by Ansel Adams. It was intersting since Adams rarely did portraits, but it was much more valuable for its' association and inscriptions. It commemorated the first meeting of the photographer and the poet, and had a stanza from Jeffers poem "Roan Stallion" in Jeffers hand and signed by Jeffers, as well as an inscription by Adams, both to the recipient, a philanthropist from San Francisco who financed Adams first show. The combination of an original Adams silver print, with Adams inscription to his financier (or "angel" as they say in show biz...), and the poem by Jeffers, in his hand to that same philanthropist, and the event it commemorated, placed a certain historic value on it that, though other prints exist, combined to make it truly unique. Value? Well, your guess is as good as mine - the collector I sold it to was very happy...

Best, PSC
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Postby Guest » 05/22/04 07:17 PM

Thanks Paul, makes perfect sense.
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Postby Guest » 07/15/04 03:26 PM

Hi Bob:

You wrote:

"...how you would classify the following, using 5 copies as "Rare".

There are 6 known copies (scarce) of a boo[k]. Four are in libraries. Two are in private collections. One of the private collections (although not 100% certain is actually a Foundation, will become part of a Foundation or may come up for sale or auction. One copy is definately held privately and WILL come up for auction.

As there are only 2 copies (and possibly only one) that are "freely" held is this book considered "Rare", "Scarce" or "Possibly Unique in Commerce"? The assumption here is that the library copies will remain in their dusty boxes and never be sold or put up for auction. I personally don't know the answer as to how you would classify this hypothetical book but, I do know that a situation like this would only add to the confusion of classifying books. I'd welcome your thoughts on this."


Here is how I would answer your hypothetical question. Using your definition of "rare" as five copies or less, I guess the book would be have to be classified as "extremely scarce."

When it comes to your question about classifying this book in the "in commerce" terms, your hypothetical is a great example of where the "in commerce" notion breaks down. Clever man! :)

For me, the term "unique in commerce" presents difficulties (as was perhaps your point) because it is almost like saying that the book NEVER comes up for sale, which of course contradicts the fact that it WILL in fact come up for sale. The way I see it, even though rooted in logic, use of the term "unique in commerce" sounds nonsensical and may be a sort of bibliographical koan. Ha!

That said, however, it seems safe to say that situations such as the one you pose are pretty rare if not unique (those words again!), and that in nearly all cases, the idea of an "in commerce" classification works.

And besides, with so few copies of this hypothetical book in existence, I suspect that even the most principled dealer or auction house following and using the distinction between absolute rarity (the number of copies in existence) and "in commerce" availability (how many copies are for sale at a given time, or how frequently copies come up for sale) would simply state "this is a very rare book" and leave it at that with a clear conscience.

One thing I didn't address in my original post was the TIME PERIOD one would use in determining rarity in commerce. The choice of a time period could greatly affect whether or not a book is rare or scarce - or even common - in commerce.

For example, consider a magic book which was published in 1950 and went out of print in 1955. And let's use your definition that "rare" means five copies or less, and say that "scarce" means 25 copies or less with "common" being any number greater than 25. And let's also assume that over the past 54 years, 125 copies have been offered for sale, and over the past decade 21 copies have been offered for sale, but in the last year only one copy has been offered for sale.

You guys can probably guess where I'm going with this. If one were using the 54 year period as the criterion, the book would be rather common in commerce, if the past decade, somewhat scarce in commerce, and if the past year only, very rare in commerce.

Although it is admittedly arbitrary, I tend to use one year as the time period when assessing "in commerce" availability (with one caveat to add a little later). A year seems like a nice number, is a decent amount of time, and most importantly, probably represents several "mini-cycles" of dealer acquisitions by auction or private purchases. Although it may be a little different given the specialized nature of magic books, I'd guess that most professional dealers make at least 4-6 "major" acquisitions in a one-year period.

The caveat is that, like anything else in life, things go in cycles. For example, copies of a fairly rare book may come up for auction three times in one year after a decade in which no copies have been offered for sale. Likewise, only one copy of the fairly common book used in my example may just happen to be available for sale in a given year.

This is where an honest dealer's perspective is invaluable to a buyer, and where an honest dealer who happens to follow the assumptions given above doesn't feel comfortable in saying the book is very rare in commerce, but rather chooses to just say "this is the only copy I know of which has been offered for sale in the past year."

Don't know if any of this is helpful - just the thoughts of a book lover.

Clay Shevlin
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