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.