Famous Old Things

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, I twice bought my father old books as gifts. I’m sure I paid at least market price for them, but I was astounded to be able to get them at all. They were magnificent: beyond their beauty, beyond the marvel of the words printed in them – beyond the depth and dignity of their very age – they were Significant, and they deserved to be hallowed. Each purchase was around one or two days’ pay; my days were a poor standard by which to judge these marvelous works.

One purchase was a five-volume set of the complete works of Byron – published in 1817, bound in leather. They were – are – magnificent, and they are Byron. God, Byron was alive when they were published, so they weren’t even complete yet.

The other purchase was a two-volume set of the poetical works of Longfellow – signed by the poet himself. The ink, once black, had started to turn sepia, as it does.

(The autographed biography of George Washington was beyond my means.)

I was amazed not just that I was able to afford these works, but that they were for sale. For sale, among the leaning, overladen shelves of a small bookshop, in among mere mortal texts. Who, I wondered, if they had these books, would part with them?

I never knew, but it’s this awe for the old and original, the pages touched by the creator, that came to mind this evening.

I read, you see, that Charles Dickens’ writing desk was recently sold at auction, for £433,250, to an Irish entrepreneur. According to the article, the winning bid was several times the estimated selling price. The buyer, on the other hand, thought it was a great bargain at that price; after all, Great Expectations was brought into the world upon this noble furniture.

The order of magnitude is quite different, but I understood immediately how this man felt. I’m at a loss as to how one could part with such a piece, but it sounds to me as though it’s fallen into very good hands.

Lovejoy, the antiques dealer and general low-rent rogue of Jonathan Gash’s splendid series of crime novels, is a divvy. He can feel a bonging in the chest when in the presence of true antiques: they are, he says, imbued with a near life-force of their own, one that cannot be faked (Lovejoy sometimes produces fake reproductions, but much to his personal anguish, and only, er, in emergencies). Lovejoy would’ve understood too.

Oh, yes, at the end of the article on the Dickens sale, we learn of two other sales: the typescript of Churchill’s 1940 speech to Parliament on the Battle of Britain, and (ho hum) a first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

It’s dumbfounding to realise that everything – regardless of stature or provenance – really does have its price. But it’s also heartening to know that these things exist.

15 Responses to “Famous Old Things”

  1. Stew21 Says:

    What an excellent first offering to AuthorScoop, Rob. Looking forward to reading more from you here.

  2. Jay Says:

    Can I go ahead and buy your keyboard now, Rob?

  3. C,bronco Says:

    What a wonderful gift to give your father! A few years ago, I gave my Dad a children’s book which was written about his Dad (the author lived down the street.) I slao found a second book about his Dad by the same author, and he didn’t even kow about it.

    Anyway, wonderful article, Rob!

    C,broncos last blog post..XV. 6/13/08

  4. C,bronco Says:

    and slao, I do know, is spelled “a…l…s…o.”

    C,broncos last blog post..XV. 6/13/08

  5. Kevin Says:

    Excellent piece, Rob. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to more.

  6. joycecwilliams Says:

    I love old books. It is amazing that some works survived, especially one with a signature.

    Great piece.

  7. Jamie Mason Says:

    Wonderful piece, sir. I love old, priceless milestones myself, but wouldn’t want the responsibility of owning them. It would make me nervous. I like very much that they exist, but I’m not a collector of any sort.

    I’d just like to be well-connected enough to get to see them up close.

  8. paprikapink Says:

    Rob’s here! The Internets are a better place now. I gotta echo Jamie’s remarks — I admire and am in awe of rare old treasures, but prefer not to bear the load myself. Aslo, to echo C,bronco, I sloa have some alternative spellings for ‘also.’

    paprikapinks last blog post..This Is A Big Story

  9. PAT~ Says:

    Great article, Rob! I’m an incurable collector myself, and can so relate to this piece. I have a small collection of children’s books going across the top of my bookshelves–the type of books with the color lithograph front covers…Black Beauty (from my uncle’s book collection), Baum’s Tik-Tok of Oz, Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, my 1960′s copy of The Secret Garden with the Tasha Tudor illustrations…

    Also love the old leather-bound, gilt-edged devotional and poetry books, though I learned not to try to read from them too often (binding came apart on a favorite!).

  10. Sara Says:

    I recently purchased a first edition of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, in French, and in almost perfect condition. It sold on ebay for FOUR DOLLARS and EIGHTY FOUR CENTS!!! I fully expected “Ebay For Dummies” to arrive at my doorstep a week later, but for a grand total of 10 dollars, I felt it worth the risk. And lo! It was the real thing. My hands still shake when I touch it.

    Great piece, Rob. I look forward to reading many more.

  11. Jenny Dahl Says:

    I work for a man who auctions off anything and everything from property to pots and pans to books. It has always amazed me how very little these bring… and it saddens me, too.

    What a wonderful piece, Rob. Most worthy of my ‘li’l brother’!

  12. Dude Says:

    Love the sentiment, love the writing. Nice, Rob.

  13. Tina Says:

    Lovely. I would have lost a few heartbeats over the Byron tome.

    Tinas last blog post..Living With Pain Blog Carnival

  14. Angi Says:

    A man after my own heart! I know I’m a little late to the party, but I love this. There’s just something about old things that captures my heart and fancy. I love to study a piece and wonder about the person who created it, about the person who owned it. I wonder about the history of whatever object it might be and what it would tell me if it could talk. (Although sometimes, if I listen hard enough, I think I can hear it whispering to me, trying to tell me its story.) Somehow, old things bring a color to the sepia-toned world of history, breathing into it a new and vivid life that some people just never see, or take the time to appreciate. Having a passion for history and genealogy probably helps in that area!

    Well done, Rob! This was wonderful!

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