Darren Winston of Freeman’s Discusses Recent Children’s Books Auction and Enthusiasm for the Category

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on

Many collectors attach children’s books “like a lightning bolt to memories and emotions of childhood,” says Winston

Darren Winston. Photo courtesy of Freeman’s.
Darren Winston. Photo courtesy of Freeman’s.

Freeman’s May 28, 2020 auction, The Martin Magovsky Collection of Children’s Books, presented an outstanding collection of children’s books, including many first edition examples from the last mid-century onward. We spoke with Darren Winston, Head of Department, Books and Manuscripts at Freeman’s, to learn more about children’s literature and this eye-catching sale.

Auction Daily:  Please give our readers an introduction to the category of children’s literature. Who are the primary collectors?

Darren Winston of Freeman’s: The category consists of two types of literature. The first is books written for children. An example of this is the series of Winnie the Pooh books penned by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard in the 1920s. The second is books that were not originally intended for children, but have been adopted as favorites over time by children. For example, Treasure Island, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in the late 1800s, became a children’s classic as its storyline and illustrations really resonated with younger readers.

I’ve noticed that collectors basically fall into two camps. The first are adults who were affected by books as kids, and those books become talismans to them – connecting them like a lightning bolt to memories and emotions of childhood. The second are people – like Mr. Magovsky, the consignor in our recent sale – who simply love extraordinarily well written and illustrated children’s books. They get great pleasure finding these tales from any era and relish in their stories and images. 

Auction Daily: What makes a first edition so desirable to collectors? How can someone identify a book as a first edition?

Winston: First editions have an undisputable cache with collectors. For many, they are the most important, exclusive, and prestigious examples of any given publication. A good analogy would be sitting in a concert hall for a performance. Diehard enthusiasts want to sit in the first row – not the second – and always quest for that premier seat. Collectors also love the challenge of finding first editions, which often were printed in smaller numbers.

Identifying first editions can be challenging, as there are no standards over time or across publishers. It is not usually simply a matter of a date or numbering system. For example, first edition books published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in the 1920s onward simply had a capital letter “A” printed in the middle of the copyright page, while later editions did not feature this notation. Other publishers used intricate, binary numbering systems reflecting dates and editions. Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions is a great tool for collectors. This reference spells out the different ways publishers over time identified their first editions.

Lot #11 of The Martin Magovsky Collection of Children's Books auction. Photo courtesy of Freeman's.
Lot #11 of The Martin Magovsky Collection of Children’s Books auction. Photo courtesy of Freeman’s.

Auction Daily: Lot #11, Ron and Judi Barrett’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was estimated at USD 200-300 but realized $1,063. What helped this lot exceed expectations?

Winston: This lot truly was “the package.” Because they are so few and far between, books made into films are of great interest to collectors, and this tale was made into an animated movie in 2009. It was a first edition and signed by both author Judi Barrett and illustrator Ron Barrett. It also was personalized with a little doodle on the book-plate, adding even more interest to the book. Everything really came together here. 

Auction Daily: Tell us about some noteworthy children’s book sales. What made those examples so desirable?

Winston: In 2000, I handled a $30,000 sale of a first edition of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was first published in 1997 in the United Kingdom. What is fascinating here is that only 300 copies of this book were produced, with 150 going to libraries and 150 going to local booksellers. A collector challenged me to find one of these original 150 copies, and I was able to do so at auction. These copies have only increased in value over time.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling: This signed, first edition, first printing hardback issue of the first Harry Potter book realized $153,600 at Hindman's November 5, 2019 "Library of a Midwestern Collector" sale. Photo from LiveAuctioneers.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling: This signed, first edition, first printing hardback issue of the first Harry Potter book realized $153,600 at Hindman’s November 5, 2019 “Library of a Midwestern Collector” sale. Photo from LiveAuctioneers.

Dust jackets also impact the price of literature. A 1908 copy of The Wind and The Willows by Kenneth Grahame with its original dust jacket traded hands for about $50,000. The sale would have been a fraction of that if the book did not have its dust jacket. Dust jackets are ephemeral and tend to get lost to time. In the 1920s, publishers started paying attention to dust jackets and illustrating them lavishly. At that time, readers often removed the dust jackets from books when they put them on their bookshelves. This was to avoid a “wall of color” in their libraries. As such, classics from this era – like a fine, 1925 first edition copy of  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with its dust jacket – can sell for six figures. 

Auction Daily:  And finally, how do collectors display their collections of children’s literature? And do collectors actually read the books? 

Winston: Some have them on shelves, others have them in drawers; I know of a collector who displays their items on stands with the books open to certain illustrations or passages. Bibliophiles usually don’t read or handle fine examples from their collections but have a “reading copy” on hand. 

Regardless of display preferences, there are a few rules of thumb that are essential in maintaining a book collection. Keep all examples away from sunlight and in a dry place. Sunlight fades books, and damp books invite mold. Smoke is the enemy and is essentially impossible to remove from books, so if you are a smoker, do so far away from your collection. And keep books clean and dust free. When you dust books, wipe them down carefully from the spine to the far edge. It is very easy to damage the headcap – the part of the book at the top of the spine – if you clean the books from the edge to the spine.

Freeman’s, established in 1805, is America’s oldest auction house. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company also has offices in Richmond, VA, and Wayne, PA. For more information, please visit their website.