Ah, the delicate halitosis of the gift horse!
The old saying about “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is, of course, an ancient recommendation that if somebody gives you a gift, you shouldn’t be inquiring too closely about whether it’s any good. It’s the thought that counts.
Unfortunately, I can’t sell that thought, only the gift itself. So looking all these ponies in the mouth is a thing I have to do.
Consider, for example, this book, which a few people on the giving end regard as autographed. If so, it is signed by an icon: the book is a pictorial biography of Muhammad Ali. His autograph is a three-figure prize any old time of day. These Interwebs we have today allow me to look at other Muhammad Ali autographs. Unlike some celebrities, the iconic boxer liked his name to be big and readable: you can actually tell what every single letter is.
This signature isn’t like that. It is small and compact, with all the letters squeezed into a space you could cover with two fingers. True, Muhammad Ali was ill late in life, but this signature isn’t especially shaky, the work of unsteady hands. MIGHT he have developed as whole new autograph, one quicker and easier to use when his fans were present? Or is this the handiwork of someone else entirely? I need to know that before I put a price on the book. (I can just list it online, as I have done before, and say “Look at this signature. If you think it’s his, bid on it.” That lets the customer decide.)
Hey, here’s a first printing of the first edition of a legendary book. I have not, myself, gotten around to reading Boswell’s Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, but millions of people have, and this comes with at least a four figure price. Like a lot of similar first editions, this one comes with a lot of pages you need to check to make sure it meets the criteria for an honest to goodness first printing. Before that, though, we need to know if the Newberry wants it. We have two already, but with a book this special, it’s nice to have several copies which can be compared. In this case, the horse’s teeth might be too good for them to allow it into the Book Fair’s stable.
This one’s kind of fun. It’s an advertising blotter on which a preacher of the 1930s or so urges you to blot out Sin, Trouble, and Worry. He is one “Sky Pilot Robie”. Before I price him, I need to know a few things about who he was and where he came from. (No, I don’t know yet if he was related to the Robies of Robie House.) I was concerned about his nickname, as I associate Sky Pilots with World War II, but the term goes back to the Civil War, so THAT tooth is okay.
Here we have a collection of what I might call Street Furniture: three street signs–two from New York and one from Missouri–and the scroll from the front of a CTA bus. (For the young’uns in the audience, before buses had that digital readout above the windshield to show where they were going, they had a scroll that could be revolved when the bus was on another route. This one went to Wacker Drive and Soldier Field, among other places.) The scroll is okay—it looks old and used—but the signs are fresh and new, though in a style of a generation or three ago. I have to search them Interwebs again and see what the identifying marks are for real and replica New York street signs. I bet THAT isn’t in Wikipedia.
There’s this bookmark which involves a Roman coin of the second century, a copy of Born Free with a printed message that Elsa the Lioness wishes you a Happy Summer Vacation, these issues of Esquire with stories by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, and George Halas, and…. I’m going to have plenty to do over the next few days, looking into the mouths of all these wonders you’ve given us.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, I have just been reminded that the Newberry will be CLOSED for President’s Day weekend, this coming Saturday through Monday. So this is another notice not to bring us any horses…donations when we’re locked up tight. It might snow, and you don’t want those ponies shivering outside our door until next Tuesday. Sam Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Sky Pilot Robie wouldn’t do such a thing.