Moby Dick is My Moby Dick

A rebacked 1st edition of Moby Dick, 1851, NY, selling at Christie’s NY in June 2024 [update: sold for $32,760]

I want a first edition of Moby Dick, but I think the psychic price of actually ever buying one will be too high.

While surfing around to see how the copy for sale at Christie’s rn stacks up, I fall into a briar patch of rarity, condition reports, restoration and repair, inscription and annotation, and cutthroat antiquarian connoisseurship.

This one has been rebacked, but the original spine cover was preserved. The copy in Melville megacollector William S. Reese’s sale in 2022 had an end paper “neatly supplied” [which I think means “replaced” and a “very tender” front hinge. Also, a sales note was added: “The middle of the text block is cracked through. At the buyer’s request, Christie’s will undertake a repair at our expense.” Not pointing any fingers, but oof.

Anyway, unrestored copies are like 2-3x the price? Then there’s unrestored in actually good condition [actually, “near fine”] which was supposedly twice that? and which prompted the kind of smack talk you can only get from a rare bookseller who saw the need to chart an entirely “new realm of cataloging”:

New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. First Edition. Cloth. 1st American edition of Melville’s ungraspable phantasm of life. B. A. L.’s 1st binding (and most are) with Harper’s circular logo. Orange endpapers darkened (the standard color), foxing only to the preliminaries and ads, the text is clean. Near fine, a copy that will delight you like seeing old enemies who are down on their luck, and this book is no longer generally available in such condition, when most copies look like grandma’s knee. And here’s a warning. Buying a worn or (worse) restored Moby–Dick, while a copy like this one is for sale, is to jump overboard, into a vortex, tied to a bag of anchors. Near fine.

Just because this one is sold, do you actually think I can ever settle for a restored copy now??

The Whale, 1st ed., 1851, Richard Bentley, London, sold from the Wm. S. Reese Collection in 2022

Reese also had a 1st edition of The Whale, published in London the month before the Harper’s NY edition, in three volumes in the original binding. Even rarer was the remaindered edition from 1853, when the London publisher Bentley rebound the unsold books into a single volume to clear out his stock. For whatever reason, neither of these have the same aesthetic appeal to me as the US edition.

Lakeside Press ed. of Moby Dick, illustrations by Rockwell Kent, 1930, missing acetate jackets, in original aluminum slipcover, sold at Swann Galleries in 2023

Speaking of aesthetic, there is the 1st edition of the edition that helped put Melville on the modern map: the 1930 edition filled with woodcuts by Rockwell Kent. The Lakeside Press limited edition was three volumes in acetate in an aluminum slipcover. The patina on the slipcover of this copy that sold at Swann last year more than makes up for the missing jackets, which are all puckered now anyway. 1930 acetate: not archival after all.

Rockwell Kent Moby Dick-ish dinnerware, Vernon Kilns, 1938-39, one of two sets sold from the Wm. S. Reese Collection at Christie’s in 2022

If aesthetics were all that mattered, then the obvious thing to get would be Rockwell Kent’s Moby Dick dinnerware set, which came out in 1938. Reese had it in two colorways, but no one mentioned that there are no actual whales on these dishes. These feel like bootlegs.