Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyEinstein's "God Letter"

  • Mon, 29 Oct 2012 09:43:13    Permalink

     I first met John Schulman at a bookfair on Cape Cod in the 1980s. He called himself John Ezra Schulman back then. Sported an Ezra Pound-like goatee, sold poetry, and went about his business with a poets joy. I remember thinking, He wont last long in this business. Twenty-five years later, Id have to say I was wrong about that. His Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh, with its stock of 45,000 books and a warehouse bursting with another 150,000, is one of the countrys best.  John himself is a leader in our trade, serving as resident appraiser at the annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, and working occasional stints on PBSs Antiques Road Show. The man knows his stuff.
    A few weeks ago he posted a fascinating note on the ABAAchat line. It concerned eBay and a very unusual item that was being marketed through that venue. He has graciously assented to let me publish an expanded version as a guest blog in this weeks Bookmans Log, which will allow me more time to sit in front of the TV tracking hurricane Sandys progress - a pastime I find even more engrossing than watching 300 pound men hurl themselves at one another on Sundays NFL smorgasbord.
     Now, without further ado

    I'm honored to fill in this week for Greg as he is busy nailing plywood in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. A few days ago, Greg's fellow ABAA members chose him as the Grumpy Old Man among active dealers on our "chatline" (an ABAA-only bulletin board where we post messages, book-related and otherwise, to each other), so it's a real ego booster when Bligh himself asks you to take the helm while he reefs the sails and flogs the deckhands.

    On that same chatline, I had posted an account of an Einstein letter that was being auctioned on ebay, and Greg had asked me to write it up for his blog. The so called "God Letter" had generated tremendous hype, with articles in national papers and on heavily trafficked websites such as yahoo and Huffington Post, not only for its starting bid of $3 million but for its content, where he characterizes belief in God as the "product and expression of human weaknesses" and the Bible as a collection of tales that are "pretty childish."

    Curious about the letter, I went to ebay to take a look. I am a regular buyer on ebay, trawling its offerings for books and manuscripts of interest to me and my customers. Who can resist an 1854 pamphlet on the artificial propagation of salmon if its author is Robert Ramsbottom of Clitheroe?

    Great bargains can be found there, if you know how to look and know what to avoid. Hardly anything ever goes for retail value, but there is a lot of fraud, which ebay seemingly has no interest in policing, there is a lot of stolen material (from institutions, museums, stores, libraries, etc.), and there are a lot of hayseeds touting their items as old, original, and rare, when they are nothing of the sort. I know many ABAA dealers who buy heavily on ebay, but hardly any of them will admit to it. It's a dirty little secret.

    The ebay seller, Eric Gazin, had a 98% positive rating, actually quite low by ebay standards. His recent feedback showed that he mainly sold cheap earrings and bangles in the $15-30 range, and had accumulated dozens of negative ratings for sending people their trinkets weeks after the auctions ended and for a general lack of response. In the last year, the only 4-figure item he had sold was a Mont Blanc pen for twelve hundred bucks. For Einstein, one had to be "pre-qualified" to bid, which meant filling out a form with name, address, and phone number. For yucks, I registered.

    I was curious why the owner of the Einstein letter chose Mr. Gazin of all people to auction it. On the one hand, it made sense: a reputable auction house like Bloomsbury had got 25 times their estimate for this same letter in 2008 (170,000 GBP), but publicized it along the traditional lines of our business, that is, without much fanfare. One can't imagine the big boys, Sotheby's or Christie's putting out a lot of press publicity for this letter, and auction houses always estimate items low in order to attract bids, which makes a reserve of $3 million impossible to set, especially with no track record to substantiate that value at auction.  On the other hand, what bidder in his right mind would actually bid on such an item? So, when the letter received, within ten seconds of its appearance on ebay, a starting bid of $3 million, I was astonished. Looking at the bidder's feedback, zero, I felt confident that this was a phony bid put in by either a shill or a jerk.

    That evening, Gazin called me.

    Turned out he calls all the people who register to bid in order to determine whether they are serious or merely "dilettantes." And he's a pretty nice guy. He's in Los Angeles (this made sense), and wonder of wonders, has offices in the same building as Michael R. Thompson, a long established ABAA dealer, and is on friendly terms with him. He described himself as a "boutique" auctioneer who has done some pretty high profile auctions, working with the wealthy and with celebrities. He said he sold a Rush Limbaugh letter a couple years ago for $2.1 million. This left me momentarily speechless.  Why, I asked him, did the owner of the Einstein letter choose him? Because he's so high profile, Gazin replied, and comes recommended by so many celebs. I didn't ask him why most of his sales were costume jewelry and hazarai; I inquired how he was able to determine whether bidders actually had a few million bucks to spend, and his reply was reminiscent of Paul Ryan's when asked about the specifics of his budget. Just talking to people, he said, he can tell if they're serious or not. And he said there were some "major agnostic groups" trying to put together financing.I wished him well, and told him I wouldn't be bidding so there was no need to pre-qualify me. But thanks anyway.

    Further research revealed that Mr. Gazin also sold items on ebay under a different business name, auctioncause, with links to its website, and that he does indeed work closely with celebrities, including many upcoming auctions featuring the Kardashians. Current auctions on ebay include a "15 minute twitter takeoever from Asiz Ansari" (22 bids, $710, 2 days to go), and a cupcake girl Halloween costume signed by Katy Perry (48 bids, $260, a day and a half left). The Limbaugh letter turned out to be a 2007 letter sent to Limbaugh by Harry Reid and 40 other Democratic senators condemning Rush for some particularly incendiary commentary, and which Limbaugh claimed "demonized" him, etc.

    And on the tenth day, Einstein rested. The letter received a second bid, and "sold" for three million, one hundred dollars. Interestingly enough, there has been no publicity at all concerning its winning bidder, whereas the buyer of the Limbaugh "smear letter" was Betty Casey, a well known Washington philanthropist and Rush supporter. I still have doubts about whether this letter sold at all. A phony winning bid simply means that the seller pays very low listing and commission fees to ebay (there is a cap on ebay's "final value fees"), meaning that Gazin reaped an incalculable amount of publicity with very little outlay, or possibly, no commission at all if the "buyer," fictional or not, declines to pay.

    This is sooo L.A.

    But it could be that the august and refined world of the antiquarian can no longer attract the big money, and that making the venue as vulgar and tacky as possible is the way to go about it. In the Gilded Age, whose tenets we booksellers mainly still follow, the "robber barons" and the newly wealthy aspired to present themselves as cultured and well-bred by acquiring and displaying fine works of art and literature, and they had dealers, gallerists and svengalis to advise them accordingly. These days, the stock brokers and ultra-wealthy by and large don't have the education or taste to know how to become connoisseurs or collectors, and it's the internet and TV that teaches them how to be "classy" and what to acquire that might boost their social standing. It could be that Eric Gazin is the Joseph Duveen of our times. ---John SchulmanEric Gazin
    Joseph Duveen

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