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Taking a Gamble: On Being Wrong III

Here's something that has hung on the wall of every office I've had for the past five years (that four offices, in case you're counting). It's a single sheet; text and image on one side, text alone on the other. I have two more much like it. But I don't keep them up because I am interested in polo or Middle Eastern art. Or even because I like the images. They serve as a reminder.
Published on 21 Dec. 2011

By Brian Cassidy

Here’s something that has hung on the wall of every office I’ve had for the past five years (that four offices, in case you’re counting). It’s a single sheet; text and image on one side, text alone on the other. I have two more much like it. But I don’t keep them up because I am interested in polo or Middle Eastern art. Or even because I like the images. They serve as a reminder.

Years ago I was at a local charity store. It was not exactly a thrift store (though everything in it had been donated). It felt more like a moderately high end consignment shop. Not a place that catered to fine antiques but not a junk shop either. I went regularly as they typically had a large selection of books available and I usually found at least one or two worth picking up. Occasionally I even emerged with something great.

Every six months or so, the store would advertise a week-long “seasonal sale.” What was odd about their “sales,” however, was that rather than use the event to mark down or clear out old items, the shop instead used it to introduce new merchandise. The management would horde donations in the back room, then bring them all out at once for the “opening.” The store would close early to prepare and seemed to fancy the event a society gathering. Hors d’oeuvres were served. A piano player was hired. And it worked. People lined up outside the door beginning more than an hour before the event.

Because they would bring out so many books at the same time, I tried to make it to each of these events. Though they were crowded, most book dealers in the area were unaware of the shop. So there was little of the rude craziness one finds at similar sales. Early birds dashed for the jewelry and clothes. I typically had the book section to myself.

This particular night I noticed something very different about the books. My stomach tightened. From the top of each volume a slip of paper poked out from the pages. Opening one, I saw it was what I feared: a printout of search results for similar books on ABE. I flipped to the first page and looked at the marked price. What the week before would have been a two dollar book was now priced $20. The other books were the same. ABE printout, dramatically increased price.

The slip was meant to say, “Look how reasonable our prices are compared to what’s online.” What it actually said however was, “We have no idea what we’re doing.” Because like so many places try this tactic, the shop management did so in a misinformed way. They printed lists from highest price to lowest and stopped after one page (thereby leaving off the cheapest copies). They ignored condition (and often edition). In other words, their points of comparison were all misaligned or unrealistic. And now, sadly, so were their prices.

Disappointed, I was about to leave when I saw the polo images. I picked them up. They were unusual. Unique. Visually compelling. I turned them over in my hands. They felt old. Antique. I held the sheets to the light: laid paper.

I didn’t want to leave empty handed, so I took them home. They were twenty dollars each.

I dove into researching them. I took books from the library and scanned through page after page of Google images looking for something similar. But I made little (okay no) progress. After a week or so, I realized I needed help.

Remember when I said at the beginning of this series? Often in error, never in doubt? Me, a Gilbert and Sullivan character? Well, I decided to post a query about the pages to the Exlibris listserve, an email forum to which many of the best and most knowledgeable rare book and special collections librarians subscribe.

“Victory is at hand! “Forward into the breach! Into HISTORY!”

I was treated gently, but it quickly became apparent how over my head I was. The first few responses were tentative. But soon more authoritative answers came in. The language was Persian, Arabic. Then someone pointed out what should have been obvious from the scans: that you could see from the flecking at the edges that the image had been painted over the text. Someone else determined the book was a student notebook from a law course and had nothing to do with polo. The consensus quickly settled around the idea that these were pages created for the tourist market, made earlier in the 20th century by street artists for hapless foreign visitors looking for an authentic-looking memento from their visit to Iran.

In other words, I had paid sixty dollars for the equivalent of souvenir shop posters.


Looking at the pages now, I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe the hand-painting tempted me. Perhaps it was their exoticness. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fingerspitzengefühl[1]. Now they serve as my reminder that while it’s good to try new things as a dealer, a bookseller is not a gambler. We don’t place bets. We make investments. Some pay off (most one hopes), some don’t. These images hang on my wall to help me remember that if from the buyer’s point-of-view the market should never be caveat emptor, from the dealer’s it should never be purely a roll of the dice. Yes, take risks. But have some background, be building off something. One of my mistake was starting from total ignorance.

My other mistake, much like my error with Wyeth and Christina’s World, was that I didn’t look at what I had. At the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar one of the first things they discuss with students is when preparing to catalogue a book, examine it carefully and ask yourself “What is it exactly that I have here?” If it seems too obvious a question, it’s not. The question is meant to force you to step back and look at the material as objectively as possible. To actually see what it what it is you have in front of you. My errors reflected my own hopes and expectations, not the items at hand. The answer in both cases had been right there for me to see had I only looked closely.

The story doesn’t quite end there, however. A week later, I received an email from another bookseller:

Hello Brian.

Today I saw your query and nearly fell out of my office chair. For 30-40 years I have owned a framed page that is to my eye from the same manuscript.

Your description was right on. I have 3 horsemen. They are playing polo (or possibly the Afghan version, which I think is called buzkazi). It reminds me of Persian miniatures I have seen, so I thought the language might be Farsi, which uses the Arabic alphabet.

Your query has given me the impetus to do my own research. I realize that I know some people who might be able to read this. If I learn anything I will let you know.

Small world, is it not?

At least I was not alone.

[1]: A German term loosely translated as “finger feel.” A bookseller’s gut, his/her “spidey sense.”

The article is published in Biblioblography. Ongoing Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer. It is presented here by permission of the author.

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