Hammett: High Ticket

I don’t keep close track, but I am well aware prices on first editions of Hammett’s novels have jumped into the big money — kicked off by the legendary 1981 auction of the Adrian Goldstone crime fiction collection here in San Francisco.

From that moment on, I haven’t noticed any of the major firsts going for cheap when they hit the auction block.

Brian Wallace, always prowling the net looking for Hammett dope, let me know about an upcoming auction in September of the KoKo Collection (gee, and I didn’t even realize gorillas built up libraries!). Check out the blurb for it. You’ll find a first in dustjacket of Hammett’s first published novel Red Harvest estimated to bid up to $30,000, and a copy of The Maltese Falcon estimated to haul it at least $20,000.

And yes, estimates are all well and good, but it is the hard cash or bitcoin that changes hands when the winner is called that clinches the deal.

Most interesting to me when I glanced over the items up for bid is that Hammett is so far ahead of his contemporaries that it isn’t even close. Other writers for Black Mask — Chandler, Paul Cain, Raoul Whitfield — are estimated to haul in $2000-$4000ish per novel. Even Poe with Tales from 1845 is estimated only nabbing $10,000.

No question that at this moment Hammett is Mr. High Ticket.

And you may be interested to know that I was yakking about this auction with Terry Zobeck, who was reminded of

an eBay auction from about ten years ago. It was for a first of Red Harvest in a beautiful dust jacket, the best I’ve ever seen. The book was easily fine condition.

The seller paid $2 for a box of books at an estate sale and it was in the bottom of the box.

She had no idea of what she had. I suggested she withdraw it and work with some reputable dealers — I recommended a few. She ended up selling it for $18,000 to a NY dealer I’d never heard of. I think she could have gotten twice that if she put it on consignment with either of the dealers I suggested.

So, moral of the story I guess is that if you get really lucky, you may stumble across one of these pricey Hammett firsts on the cheap and let somebody with deep pockets pay for it through the nose when it hits the block.

Me, the best deal on a copy of the first of Red Harvest I know of — I’ve held the copy in my hands — is a guy who found one for a dollar at a garage sale. No dustjacket. But it was inscribed on the front flyleaf, “For Bettye, Affectionately yours, Dashiell Hammett” — got to be worth a few thou.

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