The Value of Literature

By Perales, Jaime | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Value of Literature

Perales, Jaime, Americas (English Edition)

THE ANNUAL Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, held during the first part of the year in the US capital, brings together booksellers and collectors to buy or--in the case of the majority of browsers--just to see or touch a first edition of one of the great works of literature of all time.

A novelty such as a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, published in Paris in 1922, carried a price tag of US$35,000. For a similar price, one could acquire These Thirteen by William Faulkner, with a dedication by the author to his first literary agent, Bernard Wasson. The rarity of Ernest Hemingway's first work, Three Stories and Ten Poems--only 300 copies were printed in Paris in 1923--boosted its price tag to $65,000.

Although some German and French titles could be found here and there, the vast majority of books were written in English by US authors. One notable exception was the Latin American novel Cien anos de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), published in Argentina by Editorial Sudamericana in 1967; it sat in a glass case like Snow White sleeping in the forest, waiting to be awakened by a prosperous buyer. The first paperback edition of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel--its pages now a yellowing ivory hue, its cover showing a large white ark with a bushy tree growing out of it, set against a blue background--was priced at $5,500. The same volume could easily have gone for $12,500 if the author had signed it.


Collecting the complete works of the Colombian author could be an expensive hobby, since currently Garcia Marquez's works are issued simultaneously by five publishers: Mondadori in Spain, Diana in Mexico, Sudamericana in the Southern Cone, Random House in the United States, and Norma in the countries of the Andean region. Then there are all the translations of his hooks into multiple languages. Manuscripts are another story altogether. Some time ago, the manuscripts of three short stories ("La viuda de Montiel," "La siesta del martes," and "Rosas artificiales") that had been included in the 1962 collection Los funerales de la mama grande turned up after going astray in Mexico--as Garcia Marquez himself tells it--and were put on the market by a US bookseller for $9,500 apiece. In other words, a collector would have had to spend close to $30,000 to own the three manuscripts--a total of just 24 typewritten pages by the Nobel laureate.

Without a doubt, works by Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges have also increased dramatically in value. Three years ago, the US bookseller John Wronoski--one of the most important Borges collectors--presented an exhibition on the author in New York. Among the sea of first editions and manuscripts, the price of eight sheets of a working manuscript of "La biblioteca de Babel" stands out: $500,000. It's available at Wronoski's Lame Duck Books, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wronoski also owns the original handwritten manuscript of a famous short story by Julio Cortazar, "Casa tomada," which is on sale along with five other manuscripts for $220,000. Two pages of the poem "Uma Criatura," by the Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, were going for $42,500.

The Web site of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America includes some interesting surprises. A copy of a signed first edition of Octavio Paz's El arco y la lira (1956)--The Bow and the Lyre--goes for $2,250; Los dins enmascaracados by Carlos Fuentes--The Masked Days--carries a $1,250 price tag; 500 copies were issued in 1954 by Juan Jose Arreola's publishing house Los Presentes. Losjefes (1959), the first book by Mario Vargas Llosa, issued in Barcelona by publisher Leopoldo Alas, sells for $3,500.

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