March 11, 2015

The book that comes with its own piece of moon rock

Phenomenal! I've just learned that the record for the most expensive sale in the history of AbeBooks, held for 12 long years by a first edition of The Hobbit which went for US $65,000, was broken practically as soon as it featured here in January (Fetish vessels of cash: the world's most expensive books)!

That honour now belongs to a rare book of ornithology published in Italy in 1765. Its five volumes of hand-coloured engravings of birds took the two illustrators ten years to complete, and have garnered attention throughout its 2.5 centuries of life for how the birds, with their "lively posturing" (as an AbeBooks expert described it), seem to reflect the "human comedy" of 18th century Italian society. That's what it said, 18th century, but this raptor reminds me a lot of a certain 20th century Italian dictator!

A Natural History of Birds
photo: AbeBooks

The lively birds are the first six-figure sale for AbeBooks, the anonymous collector having shelled out US $191,000. The news item on the AbeBooks website about the sale lets you see, besides a slideshow of some of the engravings, what other books they have on sale at that cost, namely:

  • An inscribed first edition of The Sun Also Rises
  • The birds of Europe, a 19th century ornithological book in ... fancy that, five volumes
  • A second folio edition of Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies

Now you're talking! A second folio! I can't believe this hasn't been snapped up yet. What are these rich people doing with their disposable income?

AbeBooks has some ideas. For the same amount, they say, you could get one of these:

  • A brand new 2015 Ferrari California
  • A one-bedroom flat in central Manchester with a roof garden
  • A diamond ring featuring a six-carat ruby

Well! As it happens, last year I was invited to a Ferrari meet and got to take a turn around the track in a California. I wasn't driving it, I was riding shotgun, but I did get to push the start button. And wear an official Ferrari owner hat, given to me because the California is a convertible and the sun was turbocharged that day. (I didn't realise that the hat said 'Ferrari Owner' and experienced some gleeful moments when people would ask me which Ferrari was mine, before the truth was broken to me.)

It was truly a high, a communion with the beauty of the machine taken to a whole new level. What can I say? If I were so rich that I could take care of everyone and still have $200,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I don't know if I'd spend it on a Ferrari, but if it were $500,000, I might buy the Second Folio and a Ferrari. There is, however, a key difference between the two, which is that I would never want to give the Second Folio up, whereas I'm not convinced I would keep a Ferrari once the newness wore off.

Eight people in the world have spent that kind of money to buy themselves a book which is neither old nor irreplaceable, but which comes with something rarer and more exotic than a Ferrari, even:  a moon rock.

This novelty is the brainchild of publisher Benedikt Taschen, the man who started out back in the eighties, still a teenager, by selling his comic book collection, and never looked back, moving on to remaindered art books, and then reprinted (by him) art books, before making his name in publishing with a genial new kind of affordable art book whose maximum expression was the series of 1000 photographs of some thing: record covers, tattoos, chairs. Was the choice of 1000 over the more usual 100 a first hint of the now-overt megalomania of the man who claims that from the start, his goal was to make the greatest books in the world? Who prints on the title pages of his company's great (size, subject, workmanship and price) art books that they are "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen"?

The production in question is Moonfire, a book which Taschen put out in 2009 in a limited edition of 1969 copies, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo ll moon landing. And in what can only be seen as perfect casting, the text is by Norman Mailer, a new reprise of his coverage of the moon shot for Life magazine. This is the author whose ego was so big that, as someone pointed out, he not only decided to run for mayor of New York, but continued to think he could win even after he'd been convicted of stabbing his wife with a penknife, possibly because she was taunting him about being a lesser writer than Dostoevsky, at a party for his campaign.

The last 12 copies of the limited edition, numbers 1958 through 1969, contain a piece of moon rock. Not one of the rocks gathered on the moon by the Apollo astronauts, though you'd be forgiven for thinking that, seeing as the term used for this special edition of the limited edition is "Lunar Rock Edition", but a piece of the moon, nonetheless, from an asteroid of lunar origin.

Here's Book No. 1,969 (cost, about US $ 520,000):

It comes in a designer case which playfully resembles a coffee table, with aluminum legs shaped like the Apollo 11 landing module struts, and a surface which reproduces the lunar surface.

The coffee table featuring aluminum legs shaped like the Apollo II struts

Here's its rock:


Eight of the twelve Lunar Rock editions have been sold, but four are still available, at a price.

What's priceless is Mailer's prose.

The television image was improving. It was never clear, never did it look any better in quality than a print of the earliest silent movies, but it was eloquent. Ghosts beckoned to ghosts, and the surface of the moon looked like a ski slope at night. Fields of a dazzling pale ran into caverns of black, and through this field moved the ghost of Armstrong. There were moments when one had the impression it was possible to see through him. His image was transparent.

Aldrin descended the ladder, then jumped back on the lowest rung to test his ability to return to the Lem. The abruptness of the action broke the audience into guffaws again, the superior guffaw a sophisticate gives to a chair creaking too crudely in a horror movie. Now two ghosts paraded about, jogging forward and back, exchanging happy comments on the new nature of hopping and walking, moving faster than a walk but like much-padded toddlers, or overswathed beginners on skis. Sometimes they looked like heavy elderly gentlemen dancing with verve, sometimes the sight of their boots or their gloves, the bend of their backs setting up equipment or reaching for more rocks gave them the look of beasts on hindquarters learning to think, sometimes the image went over into negative so that they looked black in their suits on a black moon with white hollows, sometimes the image was solarized and became positive and negative at once, images yawing in and out of focus, so the figures seemed to squirt about like one-celled animals beneath a slide -- all the while, images of the Lem would appear in the background, an odd battered object like some Tartar cooking pot left on a trivet in a Siberian field.. It all had the look of the oldest photographs of expeditions to the North Pole -- there was something bizarre, touching, splendid, and ridiculous all at once, for the feat was immense, but the astronauts looked silly, and their functional conversations seemed farcical in the circumstances.

"What did you say, Buzz?"
"I say the rocks are rather slippery."

You can read it in a later, non-limited edition of Moonfire from the library, and the amazing photographs and maps are there too. Norman Mailer didn't get to see the special edition either; he died in 2007. The New York Post reported that one of his sons, an actor, had sung "Candle in the Wind" at his funeral. How ridiculous, said Stephen Mailer. A forest fire in a hurricane is more like it.

You can read more about Taschen's limited collector's editions on the Taschen website. A monograph on Ai Weiwei which comes wrapped in a silk scarf, with its own marble bookstand, anyone?


Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 21:30


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