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Natural History Books: Exploring Nature From Your Armchair

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent Van Gogh

One does not need to venture far to experience the wonders of nature. They’re as close as a single step outdoors, a glance out a window, or, the nearest bookshelf.

For centuries, natural history books have provided views and explanations of various elements of nature. These books combine remarkable illustrations with thorough details of complex scientific organisms within ornithology, horticulture, botany, and etymology, among other disciplines.

To gain an expert perspective about natural history books and the current collecting market we turned to Bruce MacMakin, Senior Vice President at PBA Galleries in San Francisco.

“A Picture Book of Beasts, British and Foreign: Or, An Introduction to Natural History,” William Darton, 1822, London. Sold for $4,300 in February 2015 through PBA Galleries. PBA Galleries image.

How is the market today for collecting natural history books? How does it compare with the market a few years ago?

The market for collectible natural history books is much the same as the market for books in general. That is to say, that while prices have basically recovered from the recession that began in the fall of 2008, the long-term effects of the Internet on the marketing and availability of books and the information contained in them has had a continued and profound influence on the values of old books. What was once scarce and hard to find in the thousands of bookstores scattered across the country and around the globe, is now available at the click of a mouse. This has depressed the value of more-common books.

At the same time, the ease with which rare books can be searched for and acquired has broadened the collecting base, and made the geographic location of collectors no longer a barrier to participation. A collector or scholar in the middle of Iowa can acquire books as easily as one in New York City. This growth in the number of collectors, coupled with the lack of intrigue in acquiring the more-common works, has driven up the prices of the more rare and significant material, as buyers vie for the few gems at the top.

“A History of the Birds of New Zealand,” Sir Walter Lawry Buller, circa 1887, London. Limited issue, one of 1,000 sets. (Est. $5,000-$7,000 in a June 3, 2017 auction). Image by Arader Galleries.

Is there a genre of natural history book that is most sought after, or is the appeal equal among various topics (botany, ornithology, marine biology, travels of naturalists, etc.)?

Every collector has reasons for collecting what they do, and for every topic there are star items that bring premium prices. This can be based on the importance of a work, its scarcity, condition or beauty. Many natural history books have striking illustrations, including hand-colored engraved plates, color printed mezzotints that were seminal in the development of printing techniques, or simple line cuts that still presented important records of the subjects. But overall, botanical works seem to have held value and interest to a greater degree than others.

 

Are natural history books more available than in years past? What do you think may be contributing to this?

There are, in general, more books available for ready purchase than ever before, due to the global marketplace provided by the Internet, so this is true of natural history books, as well. But it still takes effort to locate the works of highest quality and importance, and in today’s transparent world, where a significant book is less likely to sneak onto a shelf in a bookstore with its true value unrevealed, one will likely have to pay a healthy price.

“Voyage to the South-Sea and Along the Coasts of Chili and Peru in the Years 1712, 1713, 1714, Particularly Describing the Genius and Constitution of the Inhabitants, as well as Indians and Spaniards: Their Customs and Manners, their Natural History, Mines, Commodities, Traffick with Europe &c.,” by Amedee Francois Frezier, Jonah Bowyer, 1717, London. Sold for $1,230 in April 2016 through PBA Galleries. PBA Galleries image.

In addition to condition, what factors weigh in to the value of natural history books?

One should start with the importance of a book in establishing our knowledge of how the natural world works. A prime example would be the works of Charles Darwin – in particular, On the Origin of Species, the appearance of which in 1859 sent shock waves through not only the scientific community, but through society in general. It is an example of a book whose value continues to grow, and premium copies regularly set price records.

Another reason for natural history books to have value is the illustrations. Beginning with simple woodcuts in the 15th century, illustrations kept pace with, and in many cases engendered, advances in printing, engraving and coloring. Not only are the subjects of the illustrations important, whether botanical, ornithological, or geologic, but the techniques used are very significant as well.

“The English Moths and Butterflies,” Benjamin Wilkes, Georg Dionysius, Ehret and Jacob van Huysum, 19th century, London. (Est. $12,000-$16,000 in a June 3, 2017 auction). Image by Arader Galleries.

What are two essential tips you would offer someone interested in collecting natural history books?

As with any collecting field, concentrate on what interests you. That will make it a pleasant task to acquire the knowledge necessary to form a meaningful collection. Do not collect for value, but for significance (value will follow). And when faced with the choice of purchasing a lesser copy at a bargain price, or a premium copy at a high price, choose the premium copy. Then when you look at the book on your shelf, you will be proud of the acquisition, whereas the lesser book would cause you to regret the money spent. And from a practical point of view, in today’s market, the premium book will become more valuable, while the cheap book will only become cheaper.


Bruce MacMakin is senior vice president of PBA Galleries in San Francisco. The son of a printer, MacMakin began his career in the book-auction trade at California Book Auction Galleries in 1978, fresh out of college. It was an unplanned diversion that has lasted 38 years and counting. In 1992, he became a founding member of Pacific Book Auction Galleries, now PBA Galleries. His areas of expertise range from early incunabula and rare manuscripts to hyper-modern fiction and The Wizard of Oz.

How Dust Jackets Play a Key Role in Value of Collectible Books

In this throwaway society it seems ironic that the 19th-century innovation known as a dust jacket is no longer discarded once the book it was designed to protect is brought home. In collector circles, the paper wrapper is regarded as an integral part of a book.

By definition, the dust jacket is a book’s detachable outer cover, usually made of paper and printed with text and illustrations. This outer cover has folded flaps that secure it inside the front and back book covers.

LEFT: One of the most important literary works of the 20th century and Ernest Hemingway’s most difficult first edition to find with its dust jacket is ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ This first edition with the proper first-edition dust jacket sold at a PBA Galleries auction for $42,000 in 2006. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and PBA Galleries
RIGHT: A first edition of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ without its dust jacket sold at auction in 2006 for only $168. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and PBA Galleries

Early dust jackets looked much different than they do today. After book publishers began using cloth bindings in the 1820s, they started providing dust wrappers, which protected books while being transported from the merchant to the buyer’s home. Because jackets of this type were torn when opened, they were normally discarded. Since they were not intended to be re-used, few survived.

Publishers’ dust jackets of the modern style, which covered just the binding and left the text block exposed, were in wide use by the 1890s.

After 1900, as bookbindings became less decorative, publishers paid greater attention to dust jackets, adding multiple colors, graphics, information and advertising. As dust jackets became more attractive than the bindings, more people began to keep the jackets on their books.

Today it would be unthinkable to discard a book’s dust jacket. Booksellers and collectors generally consider it essential to the package. A dust jacket on a book can be compared to the original finish on a fine piece of antique furniture.

“Not all dust jackets are created equal. It matters most with books that are avidly collected – that usually means some 20th-century literary first editions and fine press books. It can matter much less where the content is the major factor when purchasing the book,” said Dale A. Sorenson, PhD, ISA AM, a rare book expert and former owner of Waverly Auctions Inc. (now Waverly Rare Books).

“Of course, condition of the book and condition of dust jacket – or lack of a dust jacket – can play an important part in determining value. Recent literary first editions without a dust jacket become very difficult to sell unless priced at a few dollars,” said Sorenson.

In many instances a book with its dust jacket will appeal to collectors, but without it? Not so much. “It matters most where the dust jacket becomes the wide swing factor in value – first editions by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, where depending upon the condition of the dust jacket, the presence of one can raise the price 5, 10, sometimes 20 or more times than one without dust jacket,” said Sorenson.

A dust jacket can also support the distinction of whether or not the book is a first edition. As an example, a short statement by Truman Capote is printed in green on the inside front flap of first-edition dust jackets of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Such examples are scarce and highly prized.

“On Our way” by Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1934, hardcover with dust jacket. Sold for $1,000 by Jasper52.

Since the mid-20th century, it has become a widespread practice for publishers to print the price of a book on the inside flap on the dust jacket, and for many years it was common for the buyer to clip off the corner of the jacket bearing the price. Most book collectors frown upon this practice. In some cases – one being John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – the lower inside corner of the dust jacket states “First Edition.” Sorenson says,“If clipped, much of the value is gone, as it becomes unclear if the dust jacket is the one that was actually issued with a first-edition copy.”

Another problematic practice is matching a found dust jacket with a book that lacks one. “It is done, but there could be a subtle difference between the original dust jacket and the one supplied, negating the value hoped for by supplying the dust jacket from another source,” said Sorenson, adding that the marriage should be noted along with the source.

Sorenson said that the subject of just jackets is complicated and that there are many exceptions to be considered. Dust jackets add only nominal monetary value to books in general circulation. They function as intended, i.e., to attract the initial buyer and to protect the book from too much direct handling and wear. “Where they do become important is when the book is a title that attracts collectors as opposed to readers,” Sorenson said.

For more information, Sorenson recommends Book Collecting 2000 by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. The first section contains extensive detail on the various aspects of collecting books. He also recommends Collected Books The Guide to Identification and Values by the same authors. It contains less detail about collecting and is primarily an extensive list of books in various categories, with current market prices.

Check out this week’s book auction for excellent antiquarian book finds.


Dale A. Sorenson, Ph.D., is former owner of Waverly Auctions Inc. and currently an ISA accredited personal property appraiser of used and rare books, maps, prints and autographs.