Magnificent Obsessions

In Bygone by AugustoLeave a Comment

According to British film publication Empire Magazine, today’s most expensive comic book is the Detective Comics (DC) No. 27 issue, the one in which the character of Batman makes his first appearance.  DC was initially an anthology of stories in the hard-boiled detective genre that first saw print in 1938, but in May, 1939, the Caped Crusader burst into Gotham City to solve “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and launch himself onto our collective conscience as the most popular masked vigilante of the graphic fiction world.  Valued at US$ 2.57 million, this priceless heirloom originally sold for a mere US$ 0.10 in comic stands, and there could be less than 100 copies today, not too many of which would be authenticated by the Certified Guaranty Co. (CGC), the world’s leading professional comic book grading institute, as “Very Fine” or “Mint,” let alone “Platinum,” or Nos. 8.0, 9.9 and 10.0 on the grading scale.  A “Mint”-graded specimen would require near-perfect status – pristine condition, flat cover with no surface wear, high ink reflectivity, square-cut corners, no soiling, no creases, no discoloration, and just the subtlest of bindery or printing defects.

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But even assuming that one had a DC No. 27 today with only a “Good” rating, No. 2 on the CGC scale and suggestive of substantial wear due to over-reading, that copy could still conceivably fetch well over US$ 100,000 at an auction.  Now here’s the heartbreaking news – in 1960, at six years old, I held a DC No. 27 issue in my very hands, reading it repeatedly from cover to cover, and beginning what would be a permanent fascination, even a magnificent obsession, with Batman.  At such a juvenile age, I could not have predicted that the Dark Knight would rise to superhero stardom, and so my copy suffered the ignominious fate of perhaps 90% of the world’s ephemera – books, magazines, cards, photographs, letters, tickets, newspapers and other paper documents – it was swept in the dustbin of history.  It was, as they say, tragi-comic.

The etymological root of the word “ephemera” is interesting. In the late 14th century, it was originally a medical term, from the Medieval Latin ephemera, or a “fever that lasts only a day.”  The meaning was extended later to include short-lived insects or flowers.  The Greek equivalent ephemeroi, or “men” literally means “creatures of a day.”  So in the world of collecting, ephemera refers to items (usually made of paper or board) that are meant to last for only a short period of time – like comic books soon to be replaced by the next issue, train tickets good for only that day, advertisements for products which become obsolete, letters written to express the emotions of the moment, or photographs that capture a person’s image at a particular time.  For a variety of reasons, some ephemera eventually become valuable.  Maybe the original writer became a famous figure, maybe the document assumed historical importance, or maybe the item reflected a bygone era for which there is a feeling of nostalgia.  Rarity, desirability, condition, collectors’ demand and overall significance can combine to raise the value of a simple curio or memento far beyond the original cost.  Look at these recent examples:

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  • “The Bay Psalm Book,” a translation of Biblical psalms, which was first printed by Puritan settlers in Massachusetts in 1640, was sold for US$ 14.2 million (opening bid was US$ 6.0 million) at Sotheby’s in 2010, making this mythical rarity, supposedly unseen by the market for over two generations, the world’s costliest book.  This figure surpassed the previous world record of US$ 11.5 million for John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”

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  • The one-cent 1856 British Guinea magenta stamp, at 1 inch x 1.25 inch described as the Mona Lisa of the stamp world, is expected to fetch upwards of BP 12.0 million when it goes under the gavel in June this year.  Commissioned as a limited-edition issue by the postmaster in that South American colony (because the shipment of British stamps did not arrive and, like a proper bureaucrat, he feared the disruption of mail service), the future acquirer of this singular – no other example exists – but otherwise unremarkable-looking specimen is described by a Sotheby’s official as having “completed the philatelic equivalent of conquering Mt. Everest.”

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  • An extremely rare (only 57 remain to date) 1909 baseball card with the picture of Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner was sold for US$ 2.8 million in 2007.  Wagner was famously against smoking, and when tobacco companies printed so-called cigarette cards like his, and used them to stiffen cigarette packaging, the baseball Hall-of-Famer insisted on their recall, hence dramatically increasing their market value.

There is a narrow line that separates valuable and next-to-worthless ephemera – the aphorism that “one man’s treasure is another man’s trash” could not be more appropriate.  The object of one’s desire could equally be the object of another’s disdain.  For the ephemerist (a collector of ephemera), the value of an item is quite often linked with his individual private experience, and the connection he feels with something that would otherwise be meaningless to his friends and the public-at-large, or even worthless to the untrained eye.  Museums, libraries and archives seek to conserve culture and history in a broad context, but for the relic rummagers, the significance of treasures that speak to them on a personal level far outweighs the market values.  “It’s not about the money.” Carrie Conaway writes, “The act of acquiring their (collectors’) objects of desire has a value in and of itself, one that at least equals any potential financial gain they might receive.”

Consider these memorabilia – their record-shattering market prices to ephemerists on the one hand, and their personal worth and sentimental value to the individual collector on the other:

(Left)The world’s most valuable Christmas card was sold for US$ 30,000 in 2001. Measuring 5 x 3 inches, the card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole – an English inventor credited with introducing the first commercial greeting card in the 19th century – to his grandmother. Only 12 of the original print run of 1,000, sold then at one shilling each, are thought to exist. (Right)On December 25, 1965, my best friend sent me a Christmas card with a native dance motif. In the manner that was customary in those days, he used our formal first names, addressing it to “Augusto” and signing it as “Armand.” No other specimens of this card are known to have survived.

(Left)The world’s most valuable Christmas card was sold for US$ 30,000 in 2001. Measuring 5 x 3 inches, the card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole – an English inventor credited with introducing the first commercial greeting card in the 19th century – to his grandmother. Only 12 of the original print run of 1,000, sold then at one shilling each, are thought to exist. (Right)On December 25, 1965, my best friend sent me a Christmas card with a native dance motif. In the manner that was customary in those days, he used our formal first names, addressing it to “Augusto” and signing it as “Armand.” No other specimens of this card are known to have survived.

 

(Left)Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, who, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, formed the triumvirate of great masters of the Italian Renaissance period, drew the 16th century “Head of an Apostle,” which was a study for his famous painting “Transfiguration,” now on display at the Vatican Museum. This sketch of extraordinary calibre was sold for US$ 47.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction to set the record for the most expensive drawing in art history.(Right)In 1962, I sketched a series of “Vessels” on lined grade school pad paper, following s brief fascination with pirates and ships upon reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Thankfully preserved along with other 1960’s-era memorabilia, its otherwise indistinct provenance is matched only by blissful recollections of a childhood spent aimlessly portraying figments of my imagination on paper.

(Left)Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, who, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, formed the triumvirate of great masters of the Italian Renaissance period, drew the 16th century “Head of an Apostle,” which was a study for his famous painting “Transfiguration,” now on display at the Vatican Museum. This sketch of extraordinary calibre was sold for US$ 47.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction to set the record for the most expensive drawing in art history.(Right)In 1962, I sketched a series of “Vessels” on lined grade school pad paper, following s brief fascination with pirates and ships upon reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Thankfully preserved along with other 1960’s-era memorabilia, its otherwise indistinct provenance is matched only by blissful recollections of a childhood spent aimlessly portraying figments of my imagination on paper.

 

(Left)The most expensive banknote in money collection history is the 1891 US$ 1,000 bill, an “extra-fine” specimen of which reportedly sold for US$ 2.3 million in a private auction. Considered the “Holy Grail” of collectible currency among numismatists, a lucky owner of such a treasury note is guaranteed to be an instant millionaire.(Right)During Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s inauguration in 1998 as President of the Republic, the Bangko Sentral released a unique Ps 2,000 banknote that showed him being sworn into office in front of the Barasoain Church in Malolos. Bosom friend and co-actor Fernando Poe, Jr., who was himself to run for President after Erap’s fall from grace, hovers in the background. Although my specimen is one of 300,000 pieces issued, its historical and personal value is incapable of monetary appraisal.

(Left)The most expensive banknote in money collection history is the 1891 US$ 1,000 bill, an “extra-fine” specimen of which reportedly sold for US$ 2.3 million in a private auction. Considered the “Holy Grail” of collectible currency among numismatists, a lucky owner of such a treasury note is guaranteed to be an instant millionaire.(Right)During Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s inauguration in 1998 as President of the Republic, the Bangko Sentral released a unique Ps 2,000 banknote that showed him being sworn into office in front of the Barasoain Church in Malolos. Bosom friend and co-actor Fernando Poe, Jr., who was himself to run for President after Erap’s fall from grace, hovers in the background. Although my specimen is one of 300,000 pieces issued, its historical and personal value is incapable of monetary appraisal.

 

(Left)The highest-priced chocolate in the world of confectionary delights is Cadbury UK’s Wispa Gold Chocolate which, at a ludicrous retail price of US$ 1,628, is a special-edition bar encased in edible gold and swathed in a specially designed gold leaf wrapper. The eye-watering price is said to be the precise value of its weight in gold.(Right)In 1971, I gifted Amie with an 8-oz Cadbury (made in England, and not in Malaysia) Dairy Milk Chocolate bar that I procured for a princely sum of Ps 7.50 at the Tropical Hut Supermarket along Quezon Boulevard. That gift decimated my remaining allowance for the week, but raised my stock with my girlfriend by an inestimable value.

(Left)The highest-priced chocolate in the world of confectionary delights is Cadbury UK’s Wispa Gold Chocolate which, at a ludicrous retail price of US$ 1,628, is a special-edition bar encased in edible gold and swathed in a specially designed gold leaf wrapper. The eye-watering price is said to be the precise value of its weight in gold.(Right)In 1971, I gifted Amie with an 8-oz Cadbury (made in England, and not in Malaysia) Dairy Milk Chocolate bar that I procured for a princely sum of Ps 7.50 at the Tropical Hut Supermarket along Quezon Boulevard. That gift decimated my remaining allowance for the week, but raised my stock with my girlfriend by an inestimable value.

 

(Left)Reputedly costing US$ 5,000,000 each, the Halcyon Jets “Dream Card” is what billionaires gift each other for Christmas. Recipients of this card are given access to charter flights to and from nearly every location in the world via Learjets, helicopters and jumbo aircraft. Cardholders get their own Private Aviation Specialists and a personal concierge to assist in making dining and entertaining arrangements in an exclusive network of luxury accommodations.(Right)On January 6, 1961, when families still celebrated Three Kings Day, my father presented me with a die-cast metal toy pistol, along with a gift card that read – “Dear Toto, A gun, like your strength, must be used to protect the weak and defenseless, never for abuse or advantage.” Even for a 7-year old boy, those few words resonated in unambiguous terms a treasured message of responsibility and accountability that I would remember in the years to come.

(Left)Reputedly costing US$ 5,000,000 each, the Halcyon Jets “Dream Card” is what billionaires gift each other for Christmas. Recipients of this card are given access to charter flights to and from nearly every location in the world via Learjets, helicopters and jumbo aircraft. Cardholders get their own Private Aviation Specialists and a personal concierge to assist in making dining and entertaining arrangements in an exclusive network of luxury accommodations.(Right)On January 6, 1961, when families still celebrated Three Kings Day, my father presented me with a die-cast metal toy pistol, along with a gift card that read – “Dear Toto, A gun, like your strength, must be used to protect the weak and defenseless, never for abuse or advantage.” Even for a 7-year old boy, those few words resonated in unambiguous terms a treasured message of responsibility and accountability that I would remember in the years to come.

 

(Left)A March 19, 1953 handwritten letter by scientist Francis Crick to his 12-year old son Michael announcing his breakthrough discovery of the DNA model sold at a New York auction in 2013 for US$ 5.3 million. In the 7-page artifact where he outlines a step-by-step guide to the structure of the “secret of life,” Dr. Crick, who would go on to win the 1962 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on genetics, concludes the letter with “Lots of love, Daddy.” (Right)On April 15, 1974, Amie attended a workshop in Baguio City with her friends from U.P.’s Institute of Mass Communications. Anxious to allay a boyfriend’s perturbations, she hastily dispatched an RCPI telegram with the cryptic note “Arrived missing you.” In the days before the advent of instant messaging, the telegram was the quickest possible way to communicate to one’s beloved, and receiving it posthaste provided one a priceless comfort.

(Left)A March 19, 1953 handwritten letter by scientist Francis Crick to his 12-year old son Michael announcing his breakthrough discovery of the DNA model sold at a New York auction in 2013 for US$ 5.3 million. In the 7-page artifact where he outlines a step-by-step guide to the structure of the “secret of life,” Dr. Crick, who would go on to win the 1962 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on genetics, concludes the letter with “Lots of love, Daddy.” (Right)On April 15, 1974, Amie attended a workshop in Baguio City with her friends from U.P.’s Institute of Mass Communications. Anxious to allay a boyfriend’s perturbations, she hastily dispatched an RCPI telegram with the cryptic note “Arrived missing you.” In the days before the advent of instant messaging, the telegram was the quickest possible way to communicate to one’s beloved, and receiving it posthaste provided one a priceless comfort.

 

** With apologies to Lloyd C. Douglas, who wrote the 1929 novel “Magnificent Obsession,” which was first made into a film in 1938, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne, then re-made in 1954, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.

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