As a seller of older books, I can’t help but come across remnants of the lives of the people who’ve owned the books before. From ticket stubs, to photographs, to inscriptions, the ephemera of a life that has touched a book can also add value to a book. One of the collections of books we acquired once belonged to a Hollywood publicist named Barrett Kiesling. Kiesling had been the publicity director of MGM Studios and worked with many of the great names in the movie industry, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, who mentioned Kiesling in his autobiography. An avid book collector and autograph hound, Kiesling used his contacts in the industry to amass a vast collection of signed books, many of which have the letters between the collector and the author tucked into them. That evidence of a connection to another person is what people love about autographed copies.
Recently, I came across the biography of Jackie Gleason, a noted comedian. An inscription in the book from the author was addressed to John. The signature of the author made the book worth something but, in general, an inscription addressed to a specific person lowers the value of a signed copy. Collectors usually want a flat-signed book with no inscription, or at most a generic inscription. However, tucked into the back of the book was a letter from a Hollywood agent, addressed to their client, one John Candy, and dated shortly before Candy was to be in a documentary about one of his comedic inspirations, Gleason. That implies a tangible connection between author, subject of the book, and owner of the book. I held in my hands a book that had once been held and read by someone famous. As a bookseller, my only option was to price up the copy, of course!
One of the coolest association copies I’ve ever encountered was a 5-volume set by P. & T. Corneille. The set was unremarkable; 48mo, damaged leather, a not very important work… but the bookplates! Each of the five books had the armorial bookplate of François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé, a royal supporter during the French Revolution and the only person mentioned by name in the the French national anthem. How cool! I imagine the marquis escaping France after failing to smuggle out the royal family with this set of books packed among his meager belongings, first to Prussia and then on to England. But the marquis is only the start of the story, because volume 1 of the set also contained the bookplate of Countess Bernardine Murphy Donahue. She was the adopted daughter of oil tycoon Daniel Murphy and his wife, Antoinette. While on vacation to Europe to adopt a son, they were leaving an orphanage in Italy when she tugged at Antoinette’s dress. Believing it was a sign from God, the Murphys adopted her. Bernardine was a collector of rare and antiquarian books, as well as a generous patron of charities and the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII made Bernardine a papal countess in 1960. I’ve held in my hands a connection to both of those remarkable people. You could, too, by the way… that set hasn’t sold yet.