Archive for the 'luigi serafini' Category

Wrapping things up…

Hi there. This blog has been mostly dormant for a long time, as I’ve moved my day-to-day blogging output over to tumblr. I have less time/inclination these days to write at length, so tumblr’s format fits better with how I’ve been blogging about books and book collecting. I started this blog about eight years ago as a place to write about my interest in earning extra income flipping books, which is something I never do anymore. Fairly early on, I wrote a long essay about my favorite artist, Luigi Serafini, and that post has become the flagship feature of the blog ever since. I get almost all of my traffic from people finding that page, and it has become one of the primary sources of information in English on Serafini’s work – especially to those looking to collect his books. Unfortunately, it’s now years out of date, and Serafini’s profile has increased considerably in the US in the years since I wrote it. As a result, I plan to do a significant rewrite at some point, but I have a number of other projects I need to finish first.

As a result, this post will probably be the last new update on this blog, at least for a long time. I don’t plan to take the blog down (except for maybe removing some older posts that no longer provide information that is useful to anyone due to my inexperience when I wrote them), so if you’ve used it as a source of information in the past, it isn’t going anywhere. I don’t foresee a mass outpouring of grief over this decision, given that I get around 20 hits a day on average, but if you did read the blog regularly, just know that it makes me incredibly gratified that anyone cares at all about what I have to say.

By way of conclusion, I thought it would be a nice way to come full circle if I wrote about my very eventful trip to Paris this past winter in order to attend a booksigning by Serafini himself. After all, a big focus of the blog was my quest to meet him someday, although this seemed like an incredibly remote possibility. I’d see reports of him popping up in Canada, but it always seemed like a random occurrence, and I realized that I was just going to have to bite the bullet and go to Europe to meet him. Still, it isn’t as if he hangs out in Rome with a sign inviting curious American fans to come sit down and ask him a bunch of questions.

That all changed last November, when I got an email from the largely defunct Serafini email list (which you can still sign up for on LuigiSerafini.com) announcing a signing at the Monte en L’Air bookstore in Paris. I waffled a lot about planning a trip to Europe on three weeks notice, but the simple fact was that this was my favorite artist doing a booksigning in my favorite city in the world at my favorite bookstore in the world on my birthday. I started furiously selling books on eBay to raise money for the trip, and I flew from San Francisco to New York to Oslo and then to Paris in order to save money. Forty hours of travel each way for four days in Paris! I was jetlagged for a month afterward, but it didn’t matter, because the trip turned out better than I ever could have imagined.

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The travel was a drag (I don’t recommend a six hour layover in Oslo after flying all night from New York), but I woke up the next morning (nearly two days after I left) feeling refreshed, because I absolutley love Paris. The signing wasn’t for a couple days, but I had lined up some appointments with other artists I wanted to meet, and there’s literally nothing I’d rather do on a vacation than wander aimlessly around Paris.

The day of the signing, I had spent most of the afternoon with Pierre Clement, an incredible artist in his own right and someone whose work I have begun to collect in earnest. After a wonderful lunch with Pierre and his wife Michèle, I had to hoof it over to Monte en L’air to get there in time for the signing. It was a beautful Paris evening – cold and rainy, as if I’d want it any other way. After all my hurrying, I got to the signing a few minutes early, before most of the crowd had arrived. I walked in and saw Serafini milling around and talking to a couple other people, and it struck me that I was finally going to meet him after all these years. In my “Worlds of Serafini” essay, I even have a section about what question I would ask him if I ever met him in person – and believe me that this was not a pragmatic question, but rather a hypothetical on par with how I’d manage my millions of dollars if I won the lottery.

I mustered up all my courage and approached him to let him know that I had traveled all the way from San Francisco for the signing and that it was a great pleasure to meet him. He was perfectly polite, and he even said my name sounded familiar – maybe he had read my essay after all? I had tried a bunch of times in the past to get him a copy of it, sending it to gallerists in Italy who promised to pass it along to him without ever following through. But just the idea that my name rang a bell for him was pretty cool.

The presentation included a moderator as well as two scholars from the University of Paris who interviewed Serafini and read short essays about his work. At one point, the conversation turned to how his work has been received differently in different places around the world, and it came up that the sense of mystery around Serafini is more pronounced in the US than anywhere else in the world. In fact, it was even rumored for a long time over here that Serafini wasn’t a real person, and that the true author of the Codex was shrouded in secrecy. Much to my shock, Serafini then pointed at me (standing all the way in the back) and said, “Why don’t we have Jordan come up and say a few words? He’s Amercian, so he can surely speak to this question!” Now, I do speak French, but it’s halting, error-strewn French. And I haven’t spoken French in front of a room full of 50-100 literate French people since, well, ever.

With my stomach in my throat, I went up to the front and took the mic to answer some questions and speak a little bit about how I discovered the Codex. My story about finding it sitting on the front desk at a hotel in rural Ecuador is a good one, and I was retroactively glad that I found out about it in such a cool way, rather than just reading about it on the internet! It just goes to show you – travel the world, since you never know what you’ll find.

The hardest question to answer was the first one, asked by the moderator: “And who are you?” I try to keep a pretty low profile, and it was tough to justify why I was suddenly standing up in front of this room full of people. But I mentioned Chance Press, and being able to say that I was a publisher of sorts gave me some credibility in this forum, and I even got a chance to make some jokes about wondering what I’d say if I ever met Serafini and then not being able to think of any questions now that I was standing right in front of him. You can see a recap that aired on French TV here (I’m the painfully obviously Amercan guy about halfway through the video).

I finished my impromptu interview and receded into the background to wait for the signing. I had no idea how the signing would go – I brought my first edition of the Codex as well as my copy of the Pulcinellopedia Piccola to be signed, but I didn’t know if I would even get the opportunity to get signatures in any books I didn’t buy directly from the bookstore. It turned otu that Serafini was generous with his signatures, writing lengthy dedications in Serafinian script in addition to his signature. The fact that this was his first booksigning in Paris might have also encouraged him to take good care of his fans. It made for quite a wait in line, though (not that anyone was complaining). I finally got up to the front, and he said, “Wait, you’re coming out to dinner with us, right?” “… Uhh…, well…, if you’re inviting me!” “Yes, yes, come to dinner with us, and I’ll sign your books there!” I graciously accepted, trying to play it as cool as I could before texting Justine “FUCKING LUIGI FUCKING SERAFINI JUST FUCKING INVITED ME TO FUCKING DINNER WITH HIM!” (Apologies to anyone who thought I was refined enough not to use repeated f-bombs for effect in texts to my wife.)

After a while (time I used to browse the seemingly endless selection of amazing books at Monte en L’Air), the signing wrapped up, and it was time to head to dinner. I was seated at the end of a long table next to the owner of the bookstore and Rizzoli’s French distributor, and much as I tried to keep up, I quickly got lost in the conversation. Dinner was a lively affair though, and I eventually had the pleasure of meeting some of Serafini’s close friends as well as a good long while talking with Serafini himself. Oh, and I met Claude Levi-Strauss’s widow – that’s the kind of night this was. When I let it slip that it was my birthday, all hell broke loose, and the whole table sang Happy Birthday to me as I blushed uncontrollably.

Finally, as the dinner wound down, Serafini came over and signed my two books, writing a very elegant inscription in my copy of the Codex and adding an original drawing to my copy of the Pulcinellopedia. Seeing him freehand a drawing of the Pulcinella character 30 years after the book was published was pretty amazing. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade enthralled by his art, so seeing it come forth directly from his pen was a thing to behold.

Given this experience, it felt like a good time to close up this blog, at least in its current form. I’ve spent hours upon hours ruminating on the man and his work, and finally meeting him provided some closure to all the open-ended questions I had been kicking around. Oh, and in case you were wondering: no, the text of the Codex cannot be translated. So, even if you get to meet Serafini in person like I did, his work won’t lose any of the mystery that makes it so special.

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Luigi Serafini – Storie Naturali Photo Gallery

It was recently pointed out to me by my very astute wife that my clever titles, while endearing, probably hurt my blog’s googleability (as does the fact that I almost always refer to “Serafini” and “The Codex” rather than “Luigi Serafini” and “The Codex Seraphinianus”).  So, this post’s title is boring for a reason – I’m flirting with search bots ever-so-delicately.

So, it’s an exciting day for this Serafini enthusiast.  After only a week of waiting, I received Serafini’s new book – an illustrated deluxe edition of Jules Renard’s Storie Naturali in the mail today.  Untrue to form, I will post a bunch of pictures first and then offer my extraneous commentary below.

Cardboard shipping box

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

The case-binding

Title Page

Interior spread

Leaves in pockets (20 die-cut leaves are removable)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (it wouldn't be Serafini without eggs somewhere)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (King Botto makes an appearance)

Colophon page (with Serafinian writing, including the Serafinian signature)

Serafini's signature and seal (note King Botto in the seal)

Some of the removable leaves

So, it is obvious from the above pictures that this is a remarkable book – just the amount of die-cutting to make those leaves on its own is impressive, as is the effort it must have taken to insert twenty leaves into each copy.  The quality of the materials is very nice as well – the paper is very heavy with a nice texture, and the boards are extra-thick, which makes the book feel very substantial.  Like the best FMR books, it is obvious that you are holding a deluxe book before you even open the cover.  The printing, while not on the same level as the original editions of the Codex Seraphinianus, is very vibrant as well (better than the current Rizzoli editions).  And, in a neat tip of the hat to history, the front and rear cover have pastedowns showing the original covers of Storie Naturali as published by BUR in 1959.

So – a couple thoughts, now that I have had a full day to look through and absorb this book.  First, although value and prices are of course subjective, I had no problem with the 300-Euro price tag on this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it is signed by Serafini.  The only other signed Serafini edition is the FMR first-edition of the Codex, which sells in the thousands.  Plus, the limitation on this book – 660 copies – is smaller than any edition of the Codex, leading me to believe that this one might not be around for very long.  It’s never easy to predict what will happen to a book like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around for a couple years before it sold out from the publisher, especially since BUR is doing almost no promotion outside of Italy (as far as I know, I was the first person to blog about it, except for a line in Serafini’s Wikipedia entry added in January – and I didn’t find out about it until 4 months after it was published).  None of the other European online bookstores I look at are carrying it – only Italian stores.  So, it takes some doing to track it down, and then you have to have a spare 300 Euros laying around (or a credit card, in my case).  But, I am pretty sure there won’t be a trade edition of this book, since it is a special edition of a book by Jules Renard – the trade edition is the paperback you can get for $10.  For Serafini fans, it would make sense to make a trade edition, but this isn’t a Serafini book, per se – it is catalogued under Renard’s name, with Serafini as the illustrator.

That being said, this is very much a Serafini “A” item, on the same level as the Codex Seraphinianus and the Pulcinellopedia Piccola.  Although the text belongs to Renard, the world inside the book is Renard as interpreted through Serafini’s worldview.  He isn’t just illustrating the book as much as he is providing a view into the world of a reader (himself) of Renard’s world.  And, as we’re already well aware, Serafini’s world is dominated by its own logic, a logic that mirrors ours but also brings its idiosyncracies into neon-lit relief.  Here, we have a multitude of leaves, but each leaf plays off the conventional biological blueprint of a leaf by introducing characteristically bizarre inhabitants or states.  One leaf features a microscopic tennis game being played on its surface, while another one hosts a familiar collection of characters from the Codex.  Some incorporate processions of characters, while others incorporate familiar Serafinian themes, such as eggs or the “King Botto” character.  That Serafini brings signifiers of the world he has developed and illuminated over the course of his career only drives home the point that this isn’t a mere illustration job, but a cohabitation of his world and Renard’s world.

One thing still unclear to me is the limitation – 660 copies.  Everything I had read about the book initially noted 600 copies, although the colophon mentions 660 (600 numbered in standard numbers and 60 in Roman numerals).  I’m wondering if the gray clothbound copy pictured in my first post – with the stand-up leaves and the giant fox – is actually one of the 60 super-special editions, or if that one was just an advance photo before final production specifications had been finalized.  I haven’t seen a word about one of those 60 copies anywhere, with none showing up for sale on any website.  I emailed BUR about it, but aside from the language barrier, a specialized question like this doesn’t usually elicit much help from the publisher (anyone tried emailing Abbeville lately?).  So, like everything Serafini-related, there’s still a little mystery.

Finally, a few words about the idea of meaning in Serafini’s work.  It occurred to me while looking at this book that the meaning behind Serafini’s other work was becoming clearer in its deliberate unclarity.  In other words – the Codex, and to a lesser extent, the Pulcinellopedia, aggressively goad the reader into trying to make sense of them.  The Codex – with its invented language and encyclopedic scope – seems like it should be understood, which has led most readers at some point or another to try to figure it out.  Most people get hung up on deciphering the text, assuming that if the code were cracked, everything in the pictures would all of a sudden make perfect sense, and the strange machines and sex-people-alligatorization would no longer be so vexing.  Now, by contrast, we have Storie Naturali, an actual book by an actual author who wrote stories that people were actually able to read.  And alongside this totally decipherable text is a series of window’s into Serafini’s world, and guess what: it doesn’t make any more sense here than it did there.  Serafini’s world has always been one that operates with its own set of logic, and no rational-textual explanation is going to lay bare its inner workings in terms we can easily understand.  Just like each page of the Codex, each leaf in Storie Naturali needs to be taken on its own terms, even though we know exactly what Serafini’s project is, what he’s illustrating, why he’s doing it, etc.  There’s no romantic genesis myth about this book – he wasn’t holed up in an apartment furiously creating this book with no discernible objective – he was approached by a publisher and he did a job for which I’m assuming he got paid.  But the end result in both cases – an illumination of his world – isn’t something that conventional Western logic enables us to comprehend.

Those that can’t wait to decipher the Codex should take note that the cover of this book shows Serafini’s signature written in Serafinian (with the translation, “Luigi Serafini,” written beneath).  Start there guys, and let me know when you get to the epilogue page with the skeleton hand in the Codex.  In the meantime, I’m excited to be able to refute the scholar (I can’t remember her name, but she’s interviewed in Justin Taylor’s essay about the Codex) who says that the Codex will lose its power the instant it is translated.  The more you see into Serafini’s world, the more it becomes clear that its power comes from its uniquely Serafinian logical foundation, of which the text is merely an outgrowth, and not the only thing shrouding it from our own methods of comprehension.  Otherwise, as soon as you paired his illustrations with a “real” alphabet, all of that mystery would disappear – and in Storie Naturali, that very clearly is not the case.

One note: this blog doesn’t get many comments, but I’m especially curious what Serafini fans think of this new work, so I encourage you to leave a comment with your impressions of it.

Jordan and the Lost Illustrations of Etimologiario

A while back, I posted a blog about a book I had found that contained illustrations by Serafini (here is the link, if you’re really that bored: Etimologiario Post #1 ).  Due to my laziness, I never got around to adding the promised follow-up post with all of the illustrations in it.  A quick recap: the book is called Etimologiario by Maria Sebregondi and published by Longanesi, the same publisher who put out the Pulcinellopeida (Piccola).  It was originally published in 1988, and it was reprinted by a different publisher in 2003, although I don’t know if that new edition has the Serafini illustrations or not.  The book is a small 16mo paperback, a far cry from the deluxe publication of the Codex or even the large-format Pulcinellopedia.  I have sent a couple excerpts to an Italian-speaking friend of a friend, although I haven’t heard anything back, so I still have very little idea what this book is about.  This is familiar Serafini territory, however, since nothing he has ever done has ever had any sort of text to explain the image.  And, in typical Serafini fashion, these illustrations speak for themselves with the same tortured internal logic his fans would expect.

They are recognizable as Serafini illustrations at first glance, using the same pencil technique as the Pulcinellopedia, with only the cover illustration being in color.  It is interesting that this book and his other illustration work has pretty much been swept under the rug, while all the other facets of his artistic output have been chronicled in various design anthologies and the Luna-PAC Serafini book.  I’m still holding out for a copy of In the Penal Colony, but that’s not something I expect to find anytime soon.

Anyway, enough rambling… here are the illustrations, which – to my knowledge – are making their grand debut on the internet.  Enjoy!

This post contains something so rare that everything that has ever existed before is now abundant…

What could possibly be that rare? A comment about the Codex Seraphinianus by the man himself, Luigi Serafini, that’s what. Serafini scholars (all two of them) generally consider Serafini to be a reticent man, content to put his work out into the world and let people form their own conclusions about it. (See, for example, Justin Taylor’s Codex article in which Serafini coquettishly dodges Taylor’s request to interview him.) However, in some sort of life-imitating-cliché, I finally managed to unearth a real, actual, written (well, translated, most likely) quotation by Serafini about the Codex only after I had stopped looking. (And yes, I plan to blab on about it at length before transcribing the quotation itself, which is actually pretty short.)

The funny part is that I found this rare gem in a book that’s not rare at all. In fact, I picked it up on Amazon Marketplace for $6, and although there are less copies of this particular book available online than the Codex itself, it doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult book to find. The book is called New Italian Design (edited by Nally Bellati, whoever that is), and it’s an anthology of Italian designers, tucked amongst which you’ll find Serafini. I bought the book mainly because it was so cheap, and I’ve been feeling lately (rightly, as it turns out) that if I simply hoard everything that has anything to do with the man, I’m bound to find some interesting stuff.

Of course, the Serafini-related content of the book is fantastic (including a jug shaped like his “King Botto” character, who is most prominently featured in the new introduction to the Codex, a two-headed horse teapot, headless goblin wine bottles, and one of the most uncomfortable-looking chairs I’ve ever seen). Worth the $6 I paid for the book for sure.

What I didn’t expect to find, however, was the two-page introduction/bio. The bio treats Serafini mostly as a designer (although it concludes, “For Serafini is first and foremost a poet and a thinker who not only mediates between the world of dreams and that of reality but also manages to blur the division between the two”), and my amateur detective theory is that, since the audience for this book probably had never heard of the Codex, Serafini didn’t see too much harm in going on the record about it a little bit. In other words, here, Serafini isn’t the “Codex guy” that most people know him as- although the few pages devoted to him are the high point of my reading this book, the book certainly doesn’t make a point of elevating him above any of the other 40 or so designers it features. Having written the Codex is merely a feather in his cap, an additional credential that bolsters his status as a visionary designer. Taking this line of reasoning a little further, this book showcases Serafini’s commercial pursuits- many of his designs are manufactured, rather than composed solely by him (although there are some prototypes present). It therefore stands to reason that, while he might playfully turn away an interested Codex scholar like Justin Taylor, he doesn’t mind waxing eloquent about the Codex when it can make him seem like a desirable asset for a manufacturer looking for striking new designs.

So, on to the main event: so far, this is the only published comment I’ve seen Serafini make about the Codex. I don’t doubt that there is vastly more available in Italian newspapers and magazines (not to mention design books, etc.), although this is all I or anyone I know who has researched the Codex has found in English. And it’s here and only here on this here muthafuckin blog. Enjoy!

On the Codex:

“I’d call it a dream in writing,” he explains with a whimsical smile, “an image of something that has been deformed, and yet is nevertheless recognizable. The writing itself is vaguely reminiscent of Arabic script, although it is entirely the fruit of my imagination. And the strange thing is that it sort of looks realistic, intelligible. In fact a few people have actually studied it in some detail, and have discovered that there are certain shapes, certain signs that are recurrent and that give the impression of real words and a kind of syntax [my emphasis, meant to convey the “holy shit” I emitted when I read this part].”

On his work in general:

“My work really derives from a sort of vision that there and then seems to be completely autonomous. It’s usually only sometime later that I begin to realize that certain memories and recollections spurred that vision into being. On occasions, these images may also act as antennae for something that’s in the air. When this happens they’re more like visions of things still to come.”

On leaving Rome to travel to the US in the 70’s:

“At the outset, I was knocked out by the whole experience. That leap from the seventeenth century to the year 2000 was almost more than I could cope with. I knew no one there, and I just started traveling, almost obsessively, all over the place. And when I did get back to Rome, I couldn’t sit still. I set off again, for the MIddle East, as far as Babylon. And then for equatorial Africa, where I was mistaken for a spy and flung into jail for several days. All these experiences were bound to find their way into my work sooner or later.”

On his “current” projects (ca. 1990):

“At present I must confess that I’m not very pleased with how I divide my time between my various activities. I tend to get asked to do things and am unable to say no. So then I find myself involved, but not with much enthusiasm. I hope to get myself a bit better organized in the future. [These] are the years of my maturity, I suppose you’d call them. I’m aware of a certain fullness, like in the mid-afternoon when all colors seem particularly intense and nature exhibits a richness that is only visible before the first breeze of evening.”

I’ve Never Been More Excited About a Book I Won’t be Able to Understand

I’m happy to see that the Serafini article I wrote is the most-viewed page on this blog… I worked hard enough on it, so it’s pretty gratifying that people are taking the time to read it (well, I’m sure people aren’t reading ALL of it, but still). Anyway, for those that didn’t make it to the end (or for those who skipped to the pictures), I ended by mentioning an edition of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony illustrated by Serafini that I don’t expect ever to find. Well, since I finished that article, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching books that Serafini appears in, in hopes of assembling a wide-ranging collection of his work. His art has appeared in a handful of Italian art books (books that are available on Abebooks, although they’re pretty expensive to have shipped from Europe, especially with the Euro so frustratingly strong right now), and I think I even found a collection of short stories that he contributed to… also, various compilations of modern interior designers feature Serafini (I picked up one published in the US for $6 on Amazon the other day).

If I were going to separate Serafini books into tiers (as collectors often do), I’d classify “A” items as those written and illustrated by Serafini (such as the Codex and the Pulcinellopedia) or books dedicated to him (such as the Luna-Pac book), “B” items as books featuring his illustrations throughout (such as the vaporous In the Penal Colony), and “C” items as anthologies in which he appears. I’m fairly certain that I’ve collected all the “A” items, but a recent discovery thickened the plot significantly as to the “B” items… (As for “C” items, I’m sure there are a bunch of Italian books I’ve never heard of that he appears in… if I could find something pre-Codex, however, I’d be ecstatic.) An unfamous author (at least to English-speakers) named Maria Sebregondi published a book called Etimologiario in 1988, and it features a bunch of Serafini illustrations. The book is on its way to me from Italy, and I’ll post more about it when I get it in a couple weeks. From what I’ve seen, the illustrations are in pencil, similar to the Pulcinellopedia. Really interesting, however, is that the book is apparently a deconstrution of written language, which is a subject about which Serafini would seem to have a lot to say.

Like the title says, I’m in the dark until I find a friendly Italian person who can translate some of the book for me, but I’m still pretty damn excited about it. I mean, I’ve spent hours researching Serafini, and I had no idea this book existed. It’s listed at various websites, but never with Serafini as the illustrator, which is why I was never aware of it. Anyway, stay tuned for more, including as many pictures as I have the patience to upload to Flickr.

The Luigi Serafini Article is Here…

UPDATE: Okay, so the article is finally done. I posted it on a new page so it doesn’t get lost in the crushing flow of my rambling. I managed to drum up a (as in 1) hit for it by adding a link to the Codex’s Wikipedia page. I think it deserves to be linked there as much as anything else on that page, although I imagine it will get deleted fairly soon…

Jeez, the way I’ve been hyping this up, you’d think I actually had something worth your time! Alas, I don’t. But, what I do have is 9500 words of pure pontification and waxy eloquence about my favorite artist and his books. Self-deprecation aside, I am proud of this, and I have been working on it for the past two weeks, rather than writing other blog entries that might actually bring some traffic to this site (5 views in the last 4 days = so popular I could cry).

The article is written, I just need to upload it to WordPress and work in all the pictures. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I’m pretty sure that it contains a) the most detailed publishing history of Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus currently available in English, and b) the only in-depth analysis of Serafini’s Pulcinellopedia (Piccola) currently available in English. So, hopefully it’s worth your time and your while… it will be unveiled sometime this weekend, and next week, I’ll get to work on the backlog of other entries that I put off while working on this monster.

Another trip to the well: An Update

Evidently, I’m not as dumb as I look. The “more common” edition of the Codex sold for $280… $20 MORE than the much more difficult-to-find first American edition I bought on eBay two nights ago. I will have a huge post about the Codex coming soon (I need to really let it ruminate… I’m going for 2000 words!), comparing all the different editions, with tons of details that no one cares about. But, suffice it to say for now, I can’t believe it sold for that much, especially to a French guy who could probably find it for its published price of 89 Euros at an art bookstore somewhere. (Or maybe it’s rarer than I think, and I’m just incredibly resourceful.) Anyway, I need to figure out what to do with the first-American edition before I buy another copy of the 2006 Codex- the cheapest copy on Abebooks is $650, which makes it the most valuable book in my collection (if you use the “cheapest copy on Abebooks” as a reliable measure of the value). Do I sell it? Sell other stuff to keep it? I’ll be up all night at this rate.

codex1Since I’m sure people only read this blog for the [book] porn pictures, here’s the title page of the American Codex (the only one in any edition that is illustrated)…

As for the Serafini book, it sold for $200 in about 5 hours… even better than the first copy I sold. I knew I was onto something with that. Although, of course I immediately bought another one to sell, and after all this gloating, I’m sure I’ll end up getting $40 for it.

And on to the Ryden stuff… I’m stuck waiting out the current state of the market before I try to sell my expensive items. I lost money on Quadratum, one of his microportfolios, and I haven’t tried to sell the Artist Proof yet (I took it to some bookstores, but they didn’t offer me enough for it). I still have a later-edition microportfolio and a signed first-edition of his book that I’m dealing with… so it might be a while. And once it’s gone, I’m going to have to find a new market niche to research. Do the 2 people that read this blog have any hot leads for me?

Carpet Bombing the FMR-ket

One of the interesting things about the used book market is how different channels operate seemingly independently of each other. On the one hand, you have the eBay channel, which changes in dynamic sometimes weekly, and on the other hand, there’s the retail/Abebooks channel that operates on its own logic. The lack of cross-talk here is really interesting to me, and it’s the main way I convinced myself I could make money at this little game. It started with a couple FMR books I sold for a profit at Moe’s Books in Berkeley… but first, as you must’ve expected from this blog, 2 long-winded levels of background.

FMR logoFirst, a little bit about FMR. The acronym stands for Franco Maria Ricci, the name of the publisher. Ricci famously describes getting his start in publishing after seeing a manual of typefaces by Giambattista Bodoni and having the same reaction that he assumes Stradivarius must’ve had after seeing a handcrafted violin for the first time: he knew immediately that he wanted to be a publisher. His books are really over the top luxury-wise, as is his magazine, the self-proclaimed Most Beautiful Magazine in the World. I first heard of FMR when I became interested in the Codex Seraphinianus, since Ricci “discovered” Serafini and was the first to publish his book. Through researching FMR’s “Signs of Man” series (dedicated to unknown or underappreciated artists), I decided to start collecting them. They are published in Italian, French, and 8 volumes in English… the ones that never made it into English are some of my favorites, including Zotl, a catalog of bizarre paintings of animals by an artist (Aloys Zotl) who was never formally trained and had no stylistic development whatsoever during his career. ZotlOr Fini Mundi, a collection of 18th-century paintings of the apocalypse with commentary by Borges. Typically, these books (many are still available new) go for $300-$400. All of them are bound in silk, many are in clamshell library cases, and the covers feature gold-stamped Bodoni type and pastedown color illustrations. They are printed on handmade Italian paper (all FMR books in the series except the Codex feature a distinctive light-blue tint), individually numbered (usually in editions of 2000-4000) and signed by Ricci.

Normally, these books would go for slightly less than their Abebooks prices when they showed up on eBay. $200-$300 was common for the English ones, although you’d often see really beat-up copies of some of them end up selling for $100 or so. Then (now we’re at the 2nd level of background), an interesting thing happened. In June, a woman in Michigan who was primarily a dealer of horse saddles bought an enormous stock of FMR books in an estate sale. And they (and by “they,” I mean the English FMR titles) just started showing up, over and over again. Demand stayed high for a really long time, and they were still selling for over $100 apiece well into the fall. But she just kept selling them and selling them. I’d get outbid at the last second with a high bid of $85, and then I’d win the book 3 weeks later for $60. I ended up buying a lot of them, because I thought their resale potential was high. Moe’s paid out $150 for a copy of Congress of the World by Borges that I got for $50. They planned to sell it for $450, which made it a great deal for both of us (although it’s still on their shelves right now, so I may have come out ahead there). I still have a few, because I like them, and I think that the price will go back up eventually. Maybe.

This brings me to the point of this blog: I watch the eBay market fluctuate independently of the retail market all the time. Things happen (like Porterhouse’s Ryden sale) that flood “rare” product on eBay, and prices go way down, and then that stock dries up, and prices come back up. For one reason or another, the same thing happened with Bukowski books last summer. But this FMR business is starting to spill over, due to the sheer volume of product released into the market. The seller has sold some pretty rare items, and those have fetched accordingly high prices, but she has a seemingly endless supply of the English FMR “Signs of Man” titles, as well as a few other random ones. It’s reached the point where everyone who wants one has one, but she’s still selling them, for less and less as time goes on. Now, books that popped up on Abebooks for $400 last summer are showing up from the same booksellers for $125. It has me wondering how long the market for the books is going to take to rebound, or if it ever will. Since I’m fairly new to the business side of this whole thing, I don’t really have any way to gauge it. A temporary glut will drop prices for a month or two, but what about a year-long assault on demand by oversupply? Prices on Abebooks don’t change very quickly, because they sit in a database that probably doesn’t get updated that often, so when they come down, I assume that they stay that way for a while. I’m wondering if in a year or two, the market will have flipped such that the books are actually going for more money on eBay than they’re listed on Abebooks. (You’d think this would be impossible that people would work to pay more for it on eBay than they could just snatch it up on an e-commerce site, but it happens all the time.)

What I find interesting about the FMR price assault is that, more than any other books I have in my collection, these books, at least from an aesthetic perspective, deserve their high prices. It’s not like a cheap paperback that just so happens to be really rare and gets its price that way- it’s clear that these books were not at all cheap to produce (Japanese silk, handmade paper, all the trimmings). Since the art reproductions can’t be printed directly on the paper, alCongressl of the illustrations are printed on glossy paper and “hand-tipped” into the books (how long this must’ve taken for each edition of 3000 is pretty staggering). You hold them- even smell them- and it’s clear that they’re expensive books. They’re designed to look luxurious on some rich couple’s $5000 coffee table. And the content is pretty good too. Ricci prided himself on pairing art monographs with interesting texts, and a lot of books have some neat literature in them. There’s the book of Tarot cards, which sounds dumb on the surface, until you learn that it’s actually a book of the oldest surviving deck of medieval Tarots, made back when Tarot was a parlor game, rather than a method of fortune-telling. Alongside the Tarot illustrations is a novella by Italo Calvino that creates mini-narratives based on the cards. Then there’s the book of paintings by Arcimboldo (the Spanish painter who painted heads made up of flowers or vegetables – composite heads, as they’re called), with an essay by Roland Barthes. (Even though I’m not in grad school anymore and don’t really read literary criticism, there’s something about Barthes that I still get a kick out of. No one can make something seem as interesting as Barthes… I never really cared one way or the other for Arcimboldo until I read Barthes’s essay on him, and now I think he’s incredible.) For Justine, I picked up a collection of photos of children by Lewis Carroll, accompanied by his letters to them (it’s very strange, to say the least).

Tarots

I bought a bunch of them at one point when the seller contacted me privately about a bulk purchase, and I managed to turn a good profit on them, although I’ve still got a couple left and I’ve exhausted the resources I have to sell them (which often happens when eBay is off limits). I guess I’ll just have to wait a few years and see if the prices ever recover from the flood.

Another trip to the well…

Hello, blog readers… if you’ve found this page, then you’re officially bored, and that certainly won’t change over the course of the time you spend here. I have another blog on Myspace that contains many irreverent ramblings about things I see and do, so I decided to focus this WordPress page on my near-obsessive book collecting habit.

Quick note: the web address of this blog (“Chance Press”) refers to the small press I one day hope to start with the lovely, extremely talented Justine Rubyred… but that’s a few years into the future, so for now, you get this.

Tonight, I took a gamble and bought a couple books by Luigi Serafini, my favorite artist and the subject of a mild global cult following. Serafini is the author of the Codex Seraphinianus, a bizarre encyclopedia of an alien (alternate?) world, written in a totally made-up script. Google it and enjoy the fuck out of yourself in the process. There are 4 major editions of the Codex: the original, published in 2 volumes in 1981 and signed by Serafini (goes for around $4000 and up), the first-US, published in 1983 (released concurrently with the first German and first Dutch editions), the 2nd edition, published in 1993(with additional material and a neat-o preface-o by Italo Calvino), and the 3rd edition, published in 2006.

Serafini art bookIn 2007, an Italian art gallery held a Serafini retrospective, and they released a really nicely designed catalog, complete with tons of essays I can’t read, because I’m too stupid to have realized that I would someday be smitten with an Italian artist and would then buy a catalog of a retrospective of his work at an Italian art gallery complete with tons of essays that I would want to read, and I never learned Italian. Still, I had to have the book as soon as I heard of it, especially because I thought it might contain a picture of Serafini’s painting of little children feeding wind-up toy alligators (it does). The book was $90 in the US, which seemed inflated, except that it is published at 44 Euros (god I hate Euros right now), and with shipping from Europe, that seemed about what I would have to pay for it if I tried to convince some Italian bookstore to send it to me.

I got it, and it didn’t disappoint me, although I started to think that I could turn it around on eBay for a profit. I mean, there is literally only one bookstore in the US that imports it (and despite the obvious website, http://www.artbooks.com, it’s not very well known and doesn’t even advertise a catalog on AbeBooks), and there is a decent Serafini following here that would want this book. It has momentarily occurred to me that I’m taking advantage of people by finding something cheap and reselling it for more (not to mention the fact that I could be accused of fleecing the nice bookseller offering this book at a fairly reasonable price), but I decided that I should be entitled to at least SOME form of compensation for the ridiculous amount of time I spend researching used books online… I mean, if no one else seems to be able to find this book online and would rather buy it on eBay, who am I to stop them from doing so?

So the book ended up selling for $170, which exceeded my expectation. I of course bought a replacement copy, but tonight I decided to take another trip to the well and buy a 3rd copy that I will again try to sell on eBay. We’ll see if the magic happens again. God damn this blog must be boring! Well, onward and upward…

3rd ed. codexI also bought a copy of the 3rd edition of the Codex Seraphinianus for $145 (again a fairly reasonable price). This one is more common to find, but I’m still going to try to sell it for profit, or at least to get my money back. My main interest in buying it is a booklet that supposedly ships with the book called “Decodex”. Again supposedly, this booklet contains Serafini’s own remarks, allegedly the first that he has ever issued about this book. It will be in Italian, but in case I meet an Italian who gets a tingling sensation when thinking about translating books for strangers, I feel that I need to have it. Plus, the 3rd edition contains even more plates that weren’t in the first two editions, so who knows… I may like it so much I have to keep it and buy another one to try and sell. And this is how it goes. I’ll probably spend about 10x the amount of time it took you to read this blog mulling over that very question.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the gripping saga so far. I guarantee you that it will continue and I promise that it will never become more interesting.


January 2022
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