It all started with a little ad in the Weekend Arts section of The New York Times. The ad was illustrated with John Tenniel’s ‘White Rabbit’ engraving from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. I treasure my late mother’s 1940s boxed set of Alice’s Adventures and Through the Looking Glass, which I was allowed to look at as a child and inherited a decade ago. Are my two volumes worth anything? How much?
I contacted the advertiser, Swann Auction Galleries, to find out what was involved in being able to attend the auction, entitled “Art, Press & Illustrated Books.” Only a true interest in the subject matter, I learned. So I soon found myself at the auction house on East 25th Street getting a personal tour by Christine von der Linn, Swann’s senior specialist in art, architecture, press, illustrated books, and illustration art. She and communications director Alexandra Nelson graciously introduced me to some of the most intriguing “lots” to be auctioned later that day, two Alice books—a much earlier and rarer set than mine—included.
A “lot,” von der Linn explained, could be a single volume, a set of books or magazines, a design object, or a folio of prints. To demonstrate, she pulled Lot 168 off the shelf: Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor, with five hand-pulled photogravures after Bernice Abbott. This book was published in New York in 1991 by the Limited Editions Club, which since the 1930s has produced collectible editions that Christine characterized as “the perfect marriage between text and illustration.” It sold that day, with buyer’s premium, for $438. (Note: each lot shown in this post is linked to its detailed description on Swann’s website, so you can learn more about it, and in some cases see more images.)
The next book I had the pleasure of seeing was a rare 1651 first edition, published in Paris, of Leonardo da Vinci’s, Traitté de la Peinture, with the first-ever reproduction of the Mona Lisa.
How do treasures like these find themselves at an auction gallery, I wondered. “Besides their owners needing money,” von der Linn explained,” there could be a divorce or a death—the children aren’t interested—or the collector could be simply be putting his or her affairs in order or choosing to move in another direction, say, from rare books to classic cars, or to another genre, from art books to mystery novels.”
Thus, works that had been in important private collections become available to the interested public—even you or me—with the inclination to learn about them and bid in person, online, or on the phone. For example, from the collection of Arthur and Elaine Lustig Cohen and of special interest to graphic designers might be Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, published in 1980—number 177 of an edition of 275 signed by Ray Bradbury. This work comprises an aluminum frame with a latch on top, an instruction sheet, an introduction by Bradbury, and 14 line drawings and 10 die-cuts on 56 accordion-folded pages that can be opened to form a flat, 30-foot-long expanse.
In addition to Art, Architecture, Press and Illustrated Books, Swann employs specialists who analyze works, organize auctions, and write and produce catalogs in areas including African-American Fine Art; Autographs; Medical, Scientific and Travel Books; Maps & Atlases; Photographs & Photobooks; Prints & Drawings; and Vintage Posters. Printed catalogs of past and future auctions are available by mail, and full digital catalogs may be browsed and studied online.
Among the other books and objects auctioned that day were works by Jean Arp, Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau… and I’m barely into the C’s. Here are a few pieces that captured my attention:
Enrico Baj’s La Cravate ne vaut pas une médaille, a set of color lithographs with silkscreen and collage, Geneva and Milan, 1972 — with a three-dimensional color Lego-brick cover.
A collection of 84 Weimar-era book jackets from 1926-32, three of which are shown below. “These got a ton of attention from designers and collectors of graphics,” said von der Linn. The collection sold for $3,500.
I spent the most time with Herbert Matter: Trademarks and Symbols, two volumes of original full-color renderings of logo studies. According to the catalog, “The images are color collages affixed to the pages and display Matter’s aesthetic of pared-down straightforward designs of geometric purity.” (This collection will be the subject of my next post, which will demonstrate classic pre-computer techniques for visualizing and presenting logo designs.)
Below, von der Linn demonstrates a
“charming little moveable book in the shape of a bird” by H. Boylston Dummer, The Robin Book, circa 1925, as well as Dummer’s Santa Claus Aeroplane Book, which also opens to reveal pages with watercolor illustrations and hand-typed text.
I was most covetous of this beautifully designed Limited Editions Club 1982 edition of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, illustrated and signed by Al Hirschfeld—with iconic Hirschfeld illustrations of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. It sold for $469. Maybe next time.
And a surprise: Édouard Manet, Théodore Duret’s Histoire d’Édouard Manet et de son oeuvre. Avec un catalogue des peintures et des pastels, with two drypoint etchings by Manet and 21 full-page engravings by Beltrand after Manet, 1902. “Olympia is one of two etchings in the text done by Manet,” reported Kir Jordan, Swann’s communications associate. “The remainder are ‘after’ Manet, indicating they are copies of his other works.”
What if, I wondered, you win a book at auction—or already own it—and want to cut out a page, have it framed, and hang it on your wall? I’m not sure I could bear to have a Manet etching hidden in a bookcase if I could look at it every day. Von der Linn noted that an important part of a specialist’s work is to examine each volume to ensure that all the pages and illustrations are intact.
For lovers of art deco and futurism there were works including A.M. Cassandre, Le spectacle dans la Rue, below, 15 pages reproducing posters by Cassandre, published in Paris in 1935.
And for lovers of pop: Andy Warhol, Now Aspen in an All New Fab Issue, Aspen Vol. 1, No. 3, New York, 1966. I clearly remember the advent of this “magazine in a box” in my teen years, and this particular edition, designed by Warhol, was complete with all 11 items issued, including a rare Velvet Underground “flexi-disc,” a Pop Art Collection catalog, a “Ten Trip Ticket Book” with excerpts from a Berkeley conference on LSD by Timothy Leary, and illustrations and articles by Warhol, de Kooning, Lichtenstein and others, and even the subscription cards and ads. It sold for $1,235.
Now, what about Alice? Lot 160, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, illustrated by John Tenniel, signed by Alice Hargreaves (Alice herself), published by the Limited Editions Club in 1932 and 1935, sold to a lucky bidder for $4,000.
I showed Christine and Alexandra pictures of my Alice books—the covers and title and copyright pages—on my phone. “You’re doing the right thing,” they said. “If you think you have something of value, bring it in or send us a picture. Include the title, author, place and date of publication.” Had my mother’s books been original 1872 editions in rare condition, signed by Lewis Carroll, I learned, they might be worth $40,000. Given that they’re a 1945 book club edition, they’re perfect to keep on the shelf and give to my not-yet-born grandchildren.
Above: Swann Auction Galleries’ president Nicholas D. Lowry takes bids live, on the telephone, and online. Christine von der Linn, center, and two other specialists are on the phone with bidders.
Upcoming Swann auctions include African-American Fine Art on December 15, Illustration Art on January 28, Printed and Manuscript Americana on February 4, and Vintage Posters on February 11. Previews are held at the galleries for four days prior to the auction.
Delve into the vibrant history of contemporary illustration with Fifty Years of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts. Whether you want to learn more about the flagrant idealism of the 1960s, the austere realism of the 1970s, the superfluous consumerism of the 1980s, the digital eruption of the 1990s, or the rapid diversification of illustration in
the early 2000s, get an in-depth look at the historical contexts pertaining to the important artifacts and artists of the illustration industry in the latter half of the 20th century.
About Ellen Shapiro Print contributing editor Ellen Shapiro is principal of Visual Language LLC in Irvington, NY. She has been designing for her whole life and writing about design for more than 20 years. Her website is visualanguage.net.View all posts by Ellen Shapiro →