Wed 6 May 2015
by Walker Martin
Three years ago I discussed the Frank Robinson Collection auction which was organized by Adventure House. The biggest lot at that auction was the complete Weird Tales collection which sold for a quarter of a million dollars. Yes, that’s right, as in $250,000.00. Then we fast forward 3 years and again Adventure House held an auction for a complete collection of Weird Tales, only this time the set got zero bids. I believe a discussion of this auction will show not only what occurred and why one set sold and another set did not sell, but also we will learn how pulp collectors have changed over the years.
As with the Frank Robinson auction, this recent auction which was held on May 1, 2015, also did not generate much comment on the various discussion groups that I visit online. I know as a long time fiction magazine collector, I certainly want to talk about such subjects, in fact I’m starved for conversation and I guess that’s one of the reasons that I continue to post my pulp collecting memoirs. People have been collecting pulps for over a hundred years now, ever since the first one was published in 1896. I’ve been at it for over 50 years and I feel it’s important enough for us to continue posting articles and commenting about what happened during the time these fiction magazines ruled the newsstands.
I also feel it’s very important that we continue to support the two major pulp conventions, Windy City and Pulpfest. I’ve attended both over the years and have had many interesting conversations about the pulp era. At Windy City in April I had the opportunity to view the Weird Tales set which was on display behind the Adventure House tables. I also eagerly bought the $10.00 Weird Tales collection auction catalog. Published by Adventure House this is a 40 page full color description of the 274 issues. True, only 239 covers are shown but all are listed by condition in the back of the catalog. In addition to the 274 issues published during 1923-1954, the catalog also lists the 79 issues of the revived Weird Tales that were published during Summer 1973 to Spring 2014.
So this was a major auction of perhaps the most talked about, most famous pulp title of them all. It was advertised on the Adventure House website, emails were sent out announcing the auction, and a full color catalog was available for only 10 dollars. Why was it a flop? Why no bids?
Well, of course the most obvious reason is the fact that the minimum bid was set at $60,000. But if the Robinson WT set of three years ago sold for 250,000 dollars, how come this recent set could not attract $60,000? Well you know the old saying in real estate: location, location, location. In the pulp and book world, it’s: condition, condition, condition.
The Robinson collection was almost perfect. White pages, newsstand fresh covers, complete spines. Weird Tales was called “The Unique Magazine”. Well, the Robinson set was truly “unique”, definitely the best condition set of Weird Tales in existence. It could and did command a premium price.
So what was wrong with the set offered up for auction in May 2015? What prevented it from even getting one bid at the $60,000 minimum? The catalog described several good points such as blood red spines(they usually are faded), high quality paper, and custom made tray cases to hold each volume. When I viewed the set myself at the convention, I was impressed by all of the above. Unfortunately the following faults have to be mentioned:
1. The first 45 issues, March 1923 through June 1927 are bound in 10 blue volumes. Personally, I think using blue was a mistake. I have a set bound in red and it looks more impressive. But this is just a personal preference. The main problem with bound pulps is simply that many collectors won’t touch them at all. And those that will accept bound copies want a significant decrease in the usual price.
In the first paragraph I mentioned how pulp collectors had changed over the years, and this is one example. It used to be that old time collectors, guys who actually bought the magazines off the newsstands, loved to have their pulps bound. It gave them a look of respectability and the garish magazines looked more like a sedate book that they could proudly display on their bookshelves without being sneered at by other collectors and even non-collectors. Pulp collectors nowadays don’t think like this at all. They want the individual issues and they don’t like them bound.
2. Because they are bound these first 45 issues, which are very rare and expensive, only rate a good or good minus as far as condition.
3. Most issues in the early 1930’s have Scotch tape or clear tape on the head and foot of the spines. This was another practice that many of the old time collectors followed. I’ve seen pulps ruined with masking tape, discolored scotch tape, and even electrical tape. One guy even used stamps to close tears in the cover. Pulp collectors back then evidently thought nothing of closing and repairing tears with all sorts of tape. Now of course collectors frown on the use of tape.
4. The tray cases are a very good idea and look nice. Unfortunately several of the cases show water damage.
In my opinion, the above points prevented a high minimum bid and certainly explain why no one started off bidding at the $60,000 level. It’s too high a figure for a set in this condition. Perhaps a lower figure would have encouraged some beginning action and the final bidding might even have reached a high level. Perhaps a minimum bid of $20,000 would have been better but then again, you run the chance of the set going for such a figure and I guess the seller would consider that unacceptable.
I used to have a set of Weird Tales for many years but that was back in the days when you could buy issues for $5.00 each. Back in 1968, when I was discharged from the army, I had two big goals in my life: to get a complete set of Black Mask and a set of Weird Tales . I managed to do both within a few years. Since then I’ve seen many extensive runs of WT and I’m not even sure that it’s that rare. It seems that everybody, like many SF collectors, saved their copies! It’s really a pretty magazine, a thing of beauty.
My present set is not complete because I no longer care about the early issues of 1923-1925, most of which I find not that readable. My present set is a bound set from 1926-1954. I’ll tell the story about this set and it will illustrate the differences between the old time pulp collectors and the newer pulp collectors who never really bought any of the magazines off the newsstands.
In the 1980’s, Harry Noble, who had been buying pulps since the early 1930’s, decided to put together some bound sets of his favorite SF and fantasy magazines. He did this with such titles as Astounding, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Unknown Worlds, and of course, Weird Tales . He had trouble finding an inexpensive binder but finally found someone who would bind several magazines into one volume for a low price. Harry didn’t really care about the early issues, not only because they were not that readable, but also because they were too expensive for him to buy. But 1926-1954 he could handle and he started to his project one volume at time.
But some of his issues were coverless and he borrowed copies from my set of individual issues and made color Xerox copies of the covers. There were at least a dozen, maybe more issues that were bound with Xerox covers. As a second generation pulp collector, I tried to talk Harry out of binding the pulps. Some of the issues were in really nice shape and it was a shame to see them bound with trimmed edges. But Harry was from the first generation of collectors and he liked the look of the bound volumes.
Harry worked on this project for almost 20 years, up until his death at age 88 in 2006. He had prior warning that his illness was terminal and at the 2006 Pulpcon he told me and several other friends that he was dying. He welcomed us to visit his house and buy his extensive collection of pulps, books, and vintage paperbacks. Which we did. I made four such trips buying his sets of Western Story, Astounding, Short Stories and other items.
One day, at dinner at my house, a group of us were having dinner and the subject of the Weird Tales set came up. Harry said he wanted $10,000 for the bound in red years of 1926-1954. I pointed out that not only were the most expensive issues missing, but the set was bound which was a problem as far as value was concerned. Also I knew from personal experience that at least a dozen issues had Xerox color covers. I also remembered that there were a few other issues with pieces missing out of the covers.
However, I said I was willing to pay $5,000 considering the flaws, etc. Another well known, veteran collector also said he thought it might be worth $5,000 but no more. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even sure it was worth the 5 grand. Harry, who loved bound sets, was justifiably upset of course. In fact, he said he would throw them in the dumpster before selling them for $5,000. One of our friends got a laugh by saying to tell him which dumpster because he would be there.
I figured that was that but a couple weeks later, I got a call from Harry. He had tried several other collectors and bookstores and no one would pay the $10,000. I’m pretty sure they would not even have paid the $5,000. Harry said if I still wanted them I could have the set for $5,000 and I accepted. He didn’t last much longer and died in December of 2006. So ended a 40 year friendship.
But I still have Harry’s bound set and it looks beautiful bound in red in the master bedroom. But I’d still rather have them unbound!
Editorial Note: This video produced by Adventure House of the Weird Tales collection they were offering may not stay online for long, but at least for now, it is still up: