One of the great benefits of working in the Antiquarian and Fines Arts department of Moe's Books is the frequent appearance of beautiful and rare books, books you have never seen or previously held in your hands. Your job is to inspect them, research them, assign a value to them, describe them, and, although not necessarily part of your job, you get to appreciate and learn from them.
A couple of weeks ago we acquired a copy of George Catlin's two volume Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, & Condition of the North American Indians. Catlin, an intrepid graphic artist, joined General William Clark's expedition in the 1830 up the Mississippi and over the next five years undertook five separate expeditions throughout the plains and Rocky Mountains, eventually contacting more than fifty tribes. His sketches record the dress, abodes, activities, and artifacts of the tribes he encountered.
The earliest publication of his work, North American Indian Portfolio, Hunting Scenes and amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of American, is a portfolio of 31 hand-colored lithographs, which now sells for six figures.
Our book is an 1876 printing – it was first published in 1840 and reprinted many time over the following decades. It contains 360 color offset-lithographic plates, which are more sketch-like than the finely finished prints of the earlier portfolio. But the art is charming and informative, and our copy is complete.
The book is expensive in the current market: $4,250, and that value in part derives from the three hundred and sixty color plates the two volumes contain. In fact the charming plates are more valuable sold individually than the value of the book intact. In other words, it is a famous example of a “breaker,” purchased by print sellers, the prints being removed from the volumes and individually sold for a modest price of, say, $25 each. Let's see, $25 x 360 is $9,000. I guess that makes our copy a bargain, but let's hope that a “breaker” doesn't buy it!
This brings us to the next, spectacularly beautiful book, and it is also a book that is featured for its prints. However, these prints are of a completely different order. The book is Select Views of Sicily; Accompanied by an Historical and Descriptive Account published in 1825 by John Weale and printed by J. Moyes in London. The prints are among the most beautiful aquatints ever published. Only close inspection will reveal that they are prints and not fine watercolors.
Our volume contains 35 aquatints. It originally contained 36. Our price for the book, as is, is $5,000.
Being incomplete as it is, and given the beauty of the prints, it is possible the book is destined to be a “breaker,” I say this with some reservations as there are some things a bookseller, like anyone else, can't control.