January 2013

Signed, but unsung

By David Feela

When I find a used book inscribed by the author, that’s when my heart flutters a bit. I get nervous and glance over my shoulder, in case the store manager noticed a surge in its value. But not all signatures are equal. A signed first edition of “The Hobbit” in its original dust jacket was recently appraised on the Antiques Roadshow for between $80,000 and $100,000.

I recently acquired a Patti LaBelle cookbook. You remember the singer Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles? She’d autographed her book in a tasteful, cursive style on the title page, with an ink that reminded me of either a homemade au jus or a Crème brûlée.

Andy Nettell, the proprietor of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah, clicked his tongue and moved his head from side to side, not questioning the signature’s authenticity but rather questioning my judgment for bringing this book in. His inventory is collectible Southwest literature.

“But it’s signed!”

“Signed, but unsung,” he replied.

Then he motioned me toward three stacks of books in glossy mylar covers and told me it took him nine months to talk this collector into selling. Every title, either by Ed Abbey or Tony Hillerman, was signed, no exception. Nearly 50 books.

Patti LaBelle fluttered her eyelashes from the bottom of my cardboard box.

I own a couple of signed Tony Hillerman books too, copies I treasure and refuse to sell. I told my bookseller friend so.

“Hillerman signed so many books the value of the ink has been diluted in all but his early editions.”

I also own many Ed Abbey books, most of them in paperback. I even commissioned a tapestry of Abbey by a local fabric artist that hangs over my desk, but Ed’s ink – that earthy tincture of desert hue – still eludes me.

“May I peek at Abbey’s signature?”

Andy flipped open title page after title page, the dead man’s scrawl, graceful and legible, so unlike the scruffy desert image of the man. Every signature accompanied by a date: Edward Abbey, 11/6/68; Edward Abbey, 11/16/80; Edward Abbey, 11/1/63; and so on.

“Isn’t it odd that Abbey signed all these books in November?”

“I suspect he was just screwing with the public, once he found out his signature significantly increased the value of his books. He supposedly even dated some of his inscriptions before the actual publication date, just to see if anyone would notice. I’ve still got to examine these books more closely.”

The author Cormac Mc- Carthy, another of my favorites, is notorious for refusing to sign his books. I own first editions, but no signatures. I asked the bookseller if he had a signed McCarthy in his shop, so I could see the signature.

“Just one.”

He showed me a copy of the third book of McCarthy’s “Border “trilogy, then he told me about an appraisal he’d done of a private collection where he encountered a copy of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” a valuable first-edition book in itself, even unsigned. The copy he appraised had been inscribed by Cormac McCarthy to, of all persons, Ed Abbey, dated from a time long before McCarthy had made his mark in the annals of literature – 22 years before he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “The Road.”

“Wow,” I said, but what I meant was that in my book, on a scale of 1 to 10, that signature was an 11.

I had to leave my box of books with Andy, and he promised to sort through my stuff when he returned from the California International Antiquarian Bookfair, in Pasadena. Then he’d mail me a check for the titles he could use.

Secretly, I suspected he’d be taking Patti LaBelle with him, if not for the sale, then just for the company.

David Feela writes from Montezuma County, Colo.