One of the first 1,000 copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, printed for the U.S. market in 1866, sold for $36,000 US on Victoria-based Abebooks.com in 2016.
It was the most-expensive buy on the online booksellers marketplace this year, according to the company, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Abebooks spokesman Richard Davies said it’s no surprise the book went for the princely sum, nor is it a surprise that there are volumes of the same title listed at much higher prices.
The most expensive copy of Lewis Carroll’s tale currently available on the site is a second edition of the book listed by a London bookseller for nearly $74,000 US.
“This book has quite the history,” Davies said. “Collectors treasure the true first edition — the first edition in print — and the true first edition of that book was not liked because of the quality of the printing. They were taken back to the printers and destroyed.”
Davies said any of the first editions that survived destruction — it is believed there are 22 still in existence — would go for a much higher price.
Abebooks said an 1865 edition came up for auction this year in New York and was expected to sell for between $2 million and $3 million, but it failed to meet its reserve price.
“But this one [sold by Abebooks] was still an early edition of one of the most famous books ever published,” he said.
It is also one of the most popular. There are nearly 11,000 copies of the book listed for sale on Abebooks.com, ranging from the $74,000 volume to a paperback priced at $4.13 US.
Abebooks, founded by two Victoria families in 1996 and now owned by Amazon, has been sharing a list of its most expensive sales for years.
The company remains headquartered in Victoria, where it has 100 employees. It also has an office in Dusseldorf, Germany, with 35 employees.
This year’s list of expensive sales, topped by Carroll’s story, included the likes of Chaucer, Dickens, Waugh and Dr. Seuss among its literary giants.
But Davies said it’s not only books that sell on the site.
“We’ve always had a number of what we’d call non-book items that could be art or ephemera,” he said.
“Many book sellers have those items in their stores.”
And some of that ephemera features high on this year’s list.
An original drawing in black felt-tip pen drawing by Dr. Seuss of Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham, carrying green eggs and ham on a platter, made the list at No. 7 after it sold for $17,832 US.
A signed letter from Winston Churchill, in which the future British prime minister and statesman responds after his marriage proposal to Muriel Wilson was rejected in 1904, made the list at No. 16 after it sold for $12,500 US.
“The Winston Churchill letter was meant for a day between him and the receiver. It’s an incredible piece of history from obviously one of the most important people in British history,” Davies said. “But I don’t think he expected to have you or I reading that letter in the 21st century.”
This year’s most-expensive list includes Selectarum Stirpium Americanarum Historia by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, which came in at No. 2 after selling for $25,679 US. A first edition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was third on the list after selling for $25,000 US.
Other notables were a set of the complete works of Oscar Wilde that sold for $16,500 US, a signed volume of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust that sold for $16,450 US, a signed copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that sold for $16,000 US, a set of F. Scott Fitzgerald first editions that sold for $15,096 US and a copy of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, that sold for $14,500 US, which included a five-page letter from Williams to a family friend.
“When you see F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde or Harper Lee [on the list], you’re not surprised,” said Davies, noting it’s more surprising to see drawings, lithographs and mathematical notebooks included in the big-ticket items. “They are unique and never designed to be published.”
Two mathematical notebooks belonging to Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher, made this year’s list at No. 16, after being sold for $12,500 US.
Davies said there’s a wide variety of people willing to spend thousands on the books and ephemera — from traditional book collectors and bibliophiles to institutions such as university libraries.
The most expensive sale ever on Abebooks was recorded early in 2015, when a rare Italian ornithology book sold for $191,000.
The book, published in five volumes in 1795, was titled Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo e adornata di figure intagliate in rame e miniate al naturale: Ornithologia methodice digesta atque iconibus aeneis ad vivum illuminatis. It is translated as A Natural History of Birds.