The Poke Worth More Than the Pig

What can be fun is when you get a donation from someone who’s in the business. We went into a wildly expensive apartment once upon a time, and had our brains boggled by the sight of hundreds of cheap paperbacks on dark, built-in bookcases. Looking more closely, we found that what we had were all the books published by a particular paperback house between about 1958 and 1975, the years the owner had worked for the company. Most of them had never been read, because she’d worked on the books while they were being produced and didn’t NEED to read the final product. She had just put them on the shelf as a souvenir of where she’d been, and then gave them all to us.

And what was something like that worth? Well, not a whole bunch: the company hadn’t published many authors who turned out to be collectible. The two or three that did certainly paid for our gas and our time, but it was more a matter of being able to say “Wow!” as we looked it all over.

I was pricing records again last night and opened a couple of boxes which had been packed by a man involved with a company that designed album covers. So, naturally, he wound up with a collection of LPs he never bothered to open: the music inside didn’t interest him but he helped make the album. This collection of LPs from the mid to late 1970s will bear a little more research. Who knows what a pristine, never-opened copy of “Barry Manilow: Live!” might be worth to the right collector?

Of course, when I sell things like this, the question always comes up: Why? Why would anybody buy something for which the main attraction is that it has never been opened? If it’s a book, you can’t read it, and if it’s a record, you can’t play it. Because once you do that, you no longer have a pristine unopened item. (In the comic book world, the phrase is “You got eyetracks all over it!”) If you want to preserve the value of what you just bought, you must NEVER, NEVER use it. So why bother?

Well, you can get some use out of it by bragging about it. “See that? That is a bottle of the very first version of Diet Dr. Pepper, and it has never been opened.” After all, how many other kids on the block have one?

The most amazing sale I ever had along those lines was a rare and unusual item: so rare and unusual no one had any idea what it was worth. Return with me briefly to the thrilling days of yesteryear and I’ll describe it.

In 1930, the Lakeside Press in Chicago produced beautiful editions of four iconic American books: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The one you really want is Moby Dick, produced in 3 volumes in an aluminum slipcase with illustrations by Rockwell Kent: you can get a run-of-the-mill copy for about $5,000, but a really good one will take you into five figures. The others will run you $300 to $500 each.

Lakeside was part of the R.R. Donnelley & Sons publishing empire (see the Guinness Book of Records) and when their archives moved to the Newberry, many duplicate items were sent down to the Book Fair. Among these was a bundle wrapped in old blue paper and taped up with old packing tape, on which was stamped “Poe. Tales.” It obviously dated from around 1930, and had to have some connection with that quartet of great books.

But what was it? It hardly seemed big enough to be the book and, in any case, why wrap a single copy of the book, no matter how nice it was, in blue paper and leave it in a drawer for over seventy years?

I showed it to the first Lakeside collector who happened through, hoping for guidance. He reached for his pocket. “I have to have it.”

I held it behind my back. “First, tell me what it is.”

“I have no idea,” he said. “But I bet nobody else has one.”

He counted out a number of small but significant pieces of paper. I asked him once, some years ago, if he had ever opened it. He shook his head, a little ruefully. For all we will ever know, some joker at the Lakeside Press just wound blue paper around a rubber eraser, taped it shut, and rubber stamped those two words on the wrapper.

It was a good sale, I guess: neither of us will ever know who got the better bargain. But someday, when the kryptonite wears off, I’m flying over to his house to try my X-ray vision on that bundle.

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