Herman Melville rare books and memorabilia

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2015-06-26 11:02:37

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Herman Melville rare books and memorabilia are collectible items relating to American novelist and short story writer Herman Melville (1819-1891). He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick.

Brief History/biography

Melville’s first three novels were much admired by his contemporaries, however, his popularity declined during his lifetime. In the early 20th century, the ‘Melville Revival’ saw his work winning recognition as including one of the greatest American masterpieces in history, and a treasure of world literature, Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851). A new species of extinct giant sperm whale was even named in honour of Melville, the Livyatan melvillei, in 2010.

His first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) is another travel and adventure classic, drawing partly on Melville’s own experiences as a captive on a South Pacific island. At the time of publication it became an overnight sensation. His second novel was Omoo, another adventure story. This was followed by the more philosophical Mardi (1849), and then a return to the more rollicking style of Typee and Omoo with Redburn (1849) and the politically strident White-Jacket (1850). He went on to publish several other novels during his lifetime, but his novel Billy Budd was left unfinished at the time of his death, and published thirty three years later in 1924. His poetry is lesser known.

Types of rare books and memorabilia

Books

Bloomsbury Auctions

  • Rockwell Kent illustrated 1930 edition of Moby Dick, 3 volumes, sold for $2,200 in December 2010, $2,400 in June 2008, and inscribed by Kent sold for $3,300 in November 2007.
  • Typee first edition (1846), sold for £3,200 in June 2004.
  • The Confidence Man first edition (1857), sold for £1,500 in February 2001.
  • Omoo first edition (1847), sold for £1,300 in June 2004.
  • Israel Potter: His fifty years of exile (1855), first English edition in original illustrated boards, sold for $1,300 in November 2007.
  • Redburn first American edition (1849), sold for £700 in June 2004.

Bonhams

  • White Jacket first edition (1850), sold for $41,825 in October 2006.
  • Redburn first edition (1849), sold for $38,827 in October 2006.
  • Moby-Dick first American edition (1851), sold for $30,500 in June 2009.

Christie’s

  • The Whale (Moby-Dick) first edition (1851), published by Richard Bentley a month before the Harper and Brothers American edition, sold for $43,750 in December 2009, $74,000 in May 1995 and $75,100 in December 1993.
  • Moby Dick first American edition (1851), sold for $36,000 in December 2006, and $54,000 in June 2005.
  • Typee first American edition (1846), inscribed presentation copy, sold for $27,600 in December 1995.
  • White-Jacket, first American edition (1850), sold for $27,600 in December 1995.
  • Redburn first American edition (1849), sold for $19,120 in December 2004.

Heritage Auctions

  • The Whale first edition (1851), published by Richard Bentley a month before the Harper and Brothers American edition, sold for $53,775 in June 2008.
  • Moby-Dick first American edition (1851), sold for $29,875 in April 2011.

Sothebys

  • Moby Dick first edition (1851) sold for $74,500 in June 2011.
  • Omoo sixth edition (1855), inscribed by Melville, sold for $66,000 in June 2007.
  • The Whale (Moby-Dick) first edition (1851), published by Richard Bentley a month before the Harper Brothers American edition, sold for $57,000 in April 2004 and $51,000 in April 2005.
  • White Jacket first edition (1850), sold for $37,500 in October 2011.

Documents, Autographs, Photographs etc

Bonhams

  • Autograph letter signed by Melville dated 1849, to publisher Richard Bentley. Sold for $36,600 in February 2010.
  • Melville’s personal Victorian brass mounted mahogany travelling lap writing desk, sold for $34,160 in June 2011.

Christie’s
*Autograph letter signed by Melville to Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, dated 1883. Sold for $17,250 in May 1998.

  • Autograph letter signed by Melville to James Billson, dated 1885, sold for $14,950 in May 1996.

Heritage Auctions

  • Autograph letter signed by Melville, dated 1872, sold for $8,050 in April 2005.

Guide for collectors

Being the writer of a Great American Novel, Melville tends to hold more interest for American collectors. It is important to note whether a copy is the first American edition or the first English edition, depending which is the first true edition. There were also sometimes editions published in limited runs before the first edition, such as The Whale of 1851 published by Richard Bentley a month before the first American Harper and Brothers edition Moby-Dick of 1851.

The first few of Melville’s novels, notably Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket and of course Moby-Dick, or The Whale, are the most evidently collectible. Copies of Melville’s novels in their original bindings – illustrated paper boards or publisher’s cloth – are worth a great amount.

The 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated edition of Moby Dick in three volumes signifies the resurgence of interest in Melville, and itself had a great part to play in the 20th century success of the novel and its recognition as a classic from then onwards. Copies of this three volume edition often sell for a few thousand dollars.

Being an American literary icon, personal items relating to Melville, his life, and his literary career are also very valuable and sought-after.

A useful essay by Melville collector William S. Reese can be found at http://reeseco.com/papers/melville.htm, while a checklist of Herman Melville’s first and major editions is provided by the Antiquarian bookseller’s association of America here: http://hq.abaa.org/books/antiquarian/news_fly?code=112

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