I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.
I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.
If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:
1. Tartars in the Library
To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.
Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.
It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.
The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.
The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.
The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.
In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.
This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.
2. 1812 All Over Again
There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.
Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.
Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.
He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.
This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.
The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.
As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.
Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.
Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case. When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.
3. What does Montaigne know?
Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”
Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.
One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.
Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.
For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.
4. Accio Rare Book!
The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.
The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.
This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…
The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.
About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.
The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.
When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.
I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.
At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!
- Что можно найти в нью-йоркской мусорке. January 24, 2014. Accessible at: https://samsebeskazal.livejournal.com/292125.html
- Armitage, Stefan. Teacher sells first edition ‘Harry Potter’ book for $40,000 after finding it in school’s trash. May 21, 2020. Accessible at: https://vt.co/lifestyle/teacher-sells-first-edition-harry-potter-book-for-40000-after-finding-it-in-schools-trash
- Cutler-Tietjen, Jordan. He found 15 books in a Sierra dumpster. Then he found out they belonged to Thomas Jefferson. July 29, 2018. Accessible at: https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article214992280.html
- Rego Barry, Rebecca. Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places. Beverly: Voyageur Press, 2015.
- So I found these books in the dumpster while taking out the trash… August 27, 2018. Accessible at: https://www.reddit.com/r/BookCollecting/comments/9ar8vf/so_i_found_these_books_in_the_dumpster_while/
- The enigmatic dumpster. February 11, 2015. Accessible at: https://garbagefinds.com/2015/02/11/the-enigmatic-dumpster/