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Q&A: Richard Davies on Abebooks’ $25,000 Maurice Sendak sale

On May 25, a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are sold for $25,000 (U.S.) at Abebooks, a Victoria-based online marketplace for new, used, and rare books. The sale came just two weeks after the author’s death, and is one of the highest prices paid for a picture book on the website.

Richard Davies, manager of public relations and merchandising at Abebooks, spoke with Q&Q about what made this sale so special.

What contributed to the premium price tag on this copy of Where the Wild Things Are?
The book is a signed first edition from 1963. It was in great condition, it was signed, and it was a first edition. When you’ve got those three things plus the fame of the author all mixed in together, it makes for a very collectible book.

This wasn’t the most expensive sale for Abebooks, so why did it grab your attention?
We sell a lot of expensive copies of classic children’s books — say The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, or The Hobbit — but we rarely sell picture books. Picture books traditionally don’t age well because they are often in the hands of people who don’t really care about the condition of the book. For a picture book to be well preserved after over 40 years, that’s pretty good.

And it is rare to see high prices for a book of that type. In February, we sold a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for $6,750, and that was a limited edition illustrated by Salvador Dali. In November, we sold a signed first edition from 1957 of How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss for $9,482. Books that are $6,000, $7,000, or even $10,000 are quite common for us “ I don’t really bat an eyelid for that. So the Sendak sale sticks out quite a bit.

When an author passes away, do you often see a spike in sales of their titles?
There is nearly always a spike in interest after the death of a major author. We see this many times over where signed copies by particular authors sell very quickly after their deaths, but we also see it in cheaper copies as well. After Maurice Sendak’s death, we sold many copies of Brundibar (co-written with Tony Kushner), and they were just ordinary-priced used copies.

We also saw this happen after the deaths of J.D. Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson, and David Foster Wallace. We sold out of every signed copy we had available after Foster Wallace’s death.

What are some other high-priced books sold through Abebooks?
In terms of modern first editions “ anything from 1920 onwards “ we sold a copy of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming from 1953 for $46,453. The first edition of the Bond novels are beautiful and really collectible.

For the Internet, there’s pretty much a ceiling on what people will pay. You’ll see higher prices at auctions where people have showings. On the Internet you’re relying on the pictures provided by the seller and the description. The most expensive book we’ve sold is a $65,000 copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a signed first edition from 1937.

What special details enhance the value of a book?
When the books are signed, or are a rare first edition, or have something interesting about them “ maybe it’s a limited edition, signed by the illustrator, out of print, or an obscure title “ those books stick out and sell the quickest. If the author has inscribed the book to someone who is equally famous, that combination of details would make it expensive. Large sketches by the author in another signed first-edition copy of Where the Wild Things Are has led one bookseller, Aleph-Bet Books in New York, to raise the price of its copy to $35,750.