Ken Sanders has been buying and selling books almost his entire life. A fan of illustrated books and books about the American West, Sanders is an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow, a publisher (dreamgarden.com), and a seller of rare and used books from his store in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is also well known for the role he played in catching an infamous book thief, which is the subject of a book by Allison Hoover Bartlett called “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.” Sanders can be contacted via his website at kensanders.com.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read books. In grade school, I devoured library books. I also loved comic books, and was wheeling and dealing them as a child—buying them for a nickel, sell them for dime. By junior high, I was a pretty serious book collector. When I was 14, my grandparents took my little brother and me to Southern California to see our other grandfather. We did the Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland thing, but I begged my grandfather to take me to Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books in Long Beach, California. My grandfather sat outside the store smoking Camel cigarettes in his 1950s battleship gray Ford while I went through this bookstore for hours on end. I was in heaven.
Bertrand Smith let me into the rare book room, and I bought a Maxwell Parrish “Arabian Nights.” I bought an Alice in Wonderland just for the illustrations. At the time I had no idea the artist was a Welsh woman named Gwynedd Hudson. Turns out she only illustrated two books—Alice and Peter Pan. I fell in love with the artwork, and I bought a big folio edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” with engravings by Gustav Dore.
I also loved science fiction, horror, and mystery books. As a young kid, I was a monster nut; I ate up Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolfman. But then, about 1960-ish or so, the Marvel Superheroes came out—Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. They weren’t like the other comic books. Peter Parker/Spider-Man was this superhero by night and a nerdy high school kid who was afraid of girls during the day. That was a revelation. Spider-Man wasn’t an invincible superhero like Superman, and that had a huge appeal for an adolescent male.
The artist Steve Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, was my hero. He also created the old Atlas and Marvel horror comics in the ’50s. I really loved that stuff as a kid. Later my interests blossomed into books from the golden age of illustration by the great American and European illustrators, including Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.
Collectors Weekly: Are you attracted to the illustrations in a book first?
Sanders: I definitely think so, and I think that came out of my interest in comic books. I read a lot of literature, but it was the pictures that got me into the books I seriously collected. I discovered the Walt Kelly Pogo comic strips and books, and I came awfully close to buying all 40 of the Oz books.
I collected the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, too. Intuitively, I knew the artwork was good, but I didn’t know until I was an adult that Carl Barks had produced the duck illustrations and that Walt Disney had taken credit for everything. Disney did the same thing to Floyd Gottfredson, who created Mickey Mouse, and Walt Kelly, who worked on the film Fantasia. All those artists toiled anonymously.
Disney just stamped his name on everything, and I can understand that from a marketing and branding point of view, but to deprive individual artists of public acknowledgment, I think, is shameful. And of course they were paid terribly, too.
Where would Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Alice in Wonderland be, for example, without John Tenniel’s illustrations? If we look at editions of Alice in Wonderland today, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how many artists, including surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the great British illustrator Arthur Rackham, created their own interpretations of the book.
The golden age of illustration was from 1880 to 1930. At the beginning of this period, there were illustrators like Gustave Doré, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, and the American Brandywine School, which included great artists like N.C. Wyeth and Jessie Willcox Smith. On the European side, you had Rackham, Harry Clarke, Kay Nielsen, Willy Pogany, W. Heath Robinson, and Charles Robinson. Each of these artists would knock themselves out on an edition of Poe or Alice in Wonderland or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. There was a whole pantheon of classic children’s literature that was interpreted by these artists.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was a real favorite of these illustrators. I wouldn’t classify that as children’s literature, but it was one of those books that everybody took a shot at interpreting. And it was fun to collect that period, though good luck finding limited signed editions now. The entry level ones start in the $1,000-plus range.
One of the most sought after books is Kay Nielsen’s East of the Sun West of the Moon, which was also illustrated by many artists who signed limited editions of a few hundred. Probably the all-time best illustrated book, though, is The Ship That Sailed to Mars by William Timlin. It’s the only book the man ever wrote and illustrated.
Limited, signed volumes of Timlin’s book and Rackham’s greatest work, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, run in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. The closest to an American equivalent is Maxfield Parrish’s masterpiece, The Knave of Hearts, which in its original dust jacket and box fetches $5,000 to $8,000.
Collectors Weekly: Are there illustrated books about the American West that are well known?
Sanders: There were giant, lavishly illustrated books about the American West in the 1830s and ’40s. You’ve got Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s Indian Tribes of North America and Karl Bodmer’s great Indian portraits. They’re important because there wasn’t any photography of the American Frontier in that period. These illustrations are the only visual record we have of American Indians before European contact.
Later on, of course, Edward Sheriff Curtis did his massive 36-volume photographic portraits of North American Indian life, which is probably one of the great rarities of the West. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain a complete set of those portfolios.
There are many other great illustrators of the West—Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, William Henry Holmes, and Thomas Moran, to name a few. And there were also great photographers from the era of exploration—William Henry Jackson out of Colorado, Charles Savage here in Utah, and many others.
Collectors Weekly: Why did you begin to collect books by Western authors?
Sanders: Probably because I live in Utah. It wasn’t a childhood interest, but as I grew older, I became aware of my surroundings. The West is full of writers, such as Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, and lesser-known authors like Charles Kelly and Dale Morgan. I started reading and collecting their work in the 1970s and I fell in love with the desert southwest—the Colorado Plateau, the West Desert, the Great Basin.
And I really got into regional writers. Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a Nevada writer. His most famous novel was made into a film called The Ox-Bow Incident. I also collected William Eastlake’s lyrical Southwestern novels: Go in Beauty, The Bronc People, Portrait of an Artist with 26 Horses; Vardis Fisher’s hellfire and brimstone novels; and A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky. These writers poured themselves into their books. Sometimes they became well known, and sometimes they didn’t.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect books by authors in specific regions of the West?
Sanders: My collecting is a Western thing for sure, but it’s expanded to regional writers, to the people who speak about the sense of place and where we belong in it.
“I’m very proud of having sent at least one book thief to San Quentin.”
Every region produces great writers. I like writers who have a sense of place, who describe the natural world and how humans fit into it, whether it’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ masterpiece The Everglades: River of Grass for the WPA Rivers of America series, or Henry Beston writing about Cape Cod. One of my absolute favorite writers of all time is the Kentucky poet and novelist Wendell Berry. The Unsettling of America was a real eye-opener for me, and I’ve just fallen in love with his books over the years.
But what’s a regional writer? Is John Steinbeck a regional writer? Well, arguably he is. Is Ernest Hemingway a regional writer? Arguably, he is, too. What about Ezra Pound? He was born in Idaho and never ever came back. The African American writer Wallace Thurman, was born in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah. He went on to found the legendary Harlem Renaissance journal called Fire with Langston Hughes. Is he a Western writer? Well, he was born and lived 19 years here in Utah before he went off to New York.
Collectors Weekly: Who are the most collectible authors from the exploration period of the American West?
Sanders: It begins with the first published account in 1806 of Lewis and Clark’s explorations by Patrick Gass, who was a member of the expedition. The most important books after that are the massive 13-volume Pacific Railroad surveys that were printed in the 1850s and 1860s.
Then you enter that great age of exploration by Ferdinand Hayden, Clarence King, John Wesley Powell, and George Wheeler. You’ve got Hayden’s survey of the American West in the 1850s; King’s Fortieth Parallel Survey in 1867; Powell going down the Colorado River in 1869; and Wheeler’s survey West of the one-hundredth meridian in the 1870s. These men competed to map and make sense of these unexplored lands. The writing is very visual and the books come with spectacular plates, charts, maps, and atlases. All of these writers were recording fossils, plants, and scenery.
John Wesley Powell’s thrilling narrative about his first descent into the Grand Canyon is one of the masterpieces of the genre. John C. Frémont’s earlier report about his 1840s exploration of the Rocky Mountains was published in 1845, and included a gigantic map by Charles Preuss, the great cartographer who was a member of the expedition. That was the first map that filled in the blank spots on the maps of the West even though, ironically, it has lots of empty spaces on it. It was the very map that Brigham Young used to bring the Mormon people to Utah two years later. Everybody copied that map.
Another great local book is by Captain Howard Stansbury, who circumnavigated and mapped the Great Salt Lake in 1850. His map is so accurate that satellite photos fit on top of it like a glove. I’ve always found it amusing that Stansbury’s expedition found the end of a spyglass Kit Carson lost when he came through the territory some time before.
Captain James H. Simpson crossed the Great Basin in 1859, and Joseph Christmas Ives took a steamboat up the lower Colorado River into the Grand Canyon in 1857. You couldn’t launch a boat on the lower Colorado now—it doesn’t even exist, for crying out loud. We’ve practically sucked it dry.
Then there’s Frederick H. Chapin, who published an incredible book in 1892 about the prehistoric Anasazi cultures of Mesa Verde with stunning photos of the landscape. Julius Bien created atlases of the government surveys.
There were government-sponsored works in the latter half of the 19th century with great monographs and atlases. Whether it was Clarence Dutton’s Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District or his companion Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, or William Ludlow’s Black Hills and Yellowstone reports, they’re all masterpieces, and they are harder and harder to find.
Collectors Weekly: Was poetry part of this Western genre?
Sanders: Not so much, not in those days. When you read geologist Clarence Dutton’s passages from the Tertiary History book, they’re very lyrical and poetical. But when the explorers first started getting into the Yellowstone country and the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains, the original accounts coming out of what they called Colter’s Hell, a.k.a. Yellowstone, were so fantastical that for years nobody believed them. People just figured the stories had been written by a bunch of lying mountain men who’d been drinking too much whiskey.
Collectors Weekly: What are the origins of the Beat poetry movement on the West coast?
Sanders: For the Beat movement in the 1950s, we have to go back to World War II, which transformed this country into a huge economic engine. One of the byproducts of the war was the rise of the petrochemical, corporate agricultural, and chemical industries. Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end, I think, for the natural world.
Diane Wakoski, Neal Cassady, and dozens of other alienated youths became part of the Beat generation in the 1950s. They were on the East and the West coasts, in Greenwich Village in New York and North Beach in San Francisco. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were the holy trinity of the beat movement.
The defining moment for the Beat generation was Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. Two years later, Kerouac published On the Road. Those events gave birth to the anti-establishment movement that segued into the 1960s protests.
Poet Gary Snyder was there, too, though he doesn’t like to be called a Beat poet, and rightly so. He’s much more than that. He took off into the whole Zen Buddhist thing and the whole nature-poet thing, and he’s carved out his own independent career. And who can argue with his success? He’s a fine poet, hunkered down in the Sierra foothills out by Grass Valley in California, and he’s lived and practiced what he’s preached.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought-after Western titles of the 20th century?
Sanders: To stick with the Beats for a moment, a beautiful copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, in its dust jacket, is a $10,000 to $15,000 book now. An autographed copy of the little first edition of Howl, depending on who’s signed it, could sell from $5,000 to $25,000. Gary Snyder’s first book, Riprap, from 1959, sells in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.
The rarest book by Wallace Stegner, one of the giants of Western literature, is a little monograph published by the University of Utah that sells for around $15,000. His rarest novels are his early ones, Fire and Ice, On a Darkling Plain, and Big Rock Candy Mountain. Nice copies of those are always in the thousands of dollars.
A lot of early books aren’t necessarily rare or valuable, such as Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang; N. Scott’s Momaday’s House Made of Dawn; Frank Waters’ novels and his book on the Colorado River, The Man Who Killed the Deer; the William Eastlake’s trilogy; and Vardis Fisher’s books.
As for rarities, David Seals, a relatively unknown Sioux writer, had a hit movie made from his self-published first novel, Powwow Highway, in 1989, but I’ve never been able to get my hands on a first edition on that book. The University of Chicago Press published several thousand copies of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It as a favor to a former professor. He wrote the book at age 70 after he retired, and it became a hit movie, but that first edition is tough to find.
Before The Big Sky, A.B. Guthrie wrote a murder mystery called Murders at Moon Dance that he was so embarrassed by he never allowed it to be reprinted. It’s never listed on any of his books, so a lot of people don’t even know he wrote it. That book in its original jacket is very hard to find. Another bad first novel of note is The Indians Won by best-selling author Martin Cruz Smith. In it, the Indians and the Mormons team up and take over the interior of the United States. That book is really hard to find in the true first edition.
Collectors Weekly: How do you determine the rarity of a book?
Sanders: It’s the old law of supply and demand. From 1920s to the 1940s, Idaho Press and Caxton Press published a lot of Vardis Fisher’s limited edition, signed Morocco-leather-bound books, and they produced tiny editions of as few as 10 copies, but they’re not books that anybody cares about. They might be really hard to find, but no one wants them. So on a rarity scale, it’s hard to get much rarer, but you’re not going to have the same success selling even Vardis Fisher’s books versus limited signed Steinbecks and Hemingways.
Collectors Weekly: How many copies are typically printed in a first edition?
Sanders: Any number can be printed; no one has been able to figure out the alchemy of that weird science. Typically, a few thousand copies would have been a pretty healthy 19th-century print run.
Publishers don’t care about first editions; only collectors do. What people lose sight of is every book ever published has a first edition, and mercifully, most books are never reprinted because nobody wants them. So the mere fact that a book is a first edition, well, so what? There’s got to be more to it than that. It has to be something that endures a year later or generation later or a century later.
Collectors Weekly: Are early Western books in good condition still available?
Sanders: Yes, though the condition of a 19th or 18th-century book is different from the condition for a modern postwar literary first edition, but even those will bring a premium. So many books, particularly those with color plates or maps are chopped up and fed to the interior decorators and then they’ve been lost forever. So that makes the remaining copies even more valuable. It’s hard to find 100- to 200-year-old books in fine condition.
Collectors Weekly: What criteria define a book’s condition?
Sanders: Well, it’s got to have all its parts. You assess the cover and the binding separately from the interior text and contents. Color plates, in particular, can really be attacked by insects, molds, and fungus, and such. Depending on its condition, a book can vary in price by 10 times or more.
Collectors Weekly: Should someone read a rare book that they purchased or should they use another copy for that?
Sanders: That’s up to the collector or the owner. They certainly need to be handled with care. Some people make a point of reading their rare books. If they can’t use them and enjoy them, they don’t see the point in having them. Others lock them up in safety deposit boxes. I guess my advice would be: Don’t read it in the tub.
Collectors Weekly: Do you buy and sell later editions, too?
Sanders: The whole back wall of our 4,000 square foot bookstore is crammed full of $3 to $6 used paperbacks. I don’t make enough money off that to pay the rent without having an antiquarian client base across the country and around the world, but I love having them there.
Collectors Weekly: Are there collectors who just want hardbacks?
Sanders: A lot of collectors are hardback snobs. They hate paperbacks. Other people have a certain price limit—they won’t buy a first edition if costs more than $50 or $100. If you want to be a serious F. Scott Fitzgerald collector, and you want a Gatsby dust jacket, well… Five years ago we thought the idea of that book selling for $100,000 was ridiculous. I think one just sold for a quarter of a million dollars. Personally, I can’t afford to buy a book like that and resell it. I don’t have those kinds of resources, and most collectors and most dealers don’t either.
Collectors Weekly: How did you track down book thief John Gilkey?
Sanders: When I joined the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America in the early 1990s, I ended up on the Board of Governors and they made me chair of the security committee.
I started sending out security warnings via e-mail alerts. When a gang of thieves started defrauding Bay Area booksellers, I started tracking the robberies. It just struck me from the reports I read that it had to be the same thief, or gang of thieves.
It turns out Gilkey was working with his father. To make a long story short, it took me three years to find Gilkey. Every time he stole a book I’d get a little bit more information, and more and more people fed me reports, and I would blast them out to the whole organization. And so people started becoming wary. Obviously if you’re a bookseller and somebody slicks you out of a $5,000 copy of Grapes of Wrath with a stolen credit card, and you have to eat the $5,000, you’re not going to let that happen to you again.
Eventually Gilkey ran out of players in the immediate Bay Area. Then he hit upon the technique of calling long distance and using the same stolen Amex card to order books overnight. He got the numbers from a Christmas job he had at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. He would harvest all of the high-end Amex card account numbers. When they laid him off in January, two or three times a week he started calling up bookstores and stealing books. And then all of a sudden he’s having books overnighted all over the country to different hotel drops. He’d walk in and say “Any packages for me?” Then he’d pretend to be the cardholder and walk out.
He was hardly the only case I worked on, but it took me three bloody years to figure out what he was doing. Thanks to a detective in San Jose, who set up a sting, we caught him. It was a year and a half after that before he went to prison.
Collectors Weekly: Is there still a lot of book theft going on?
Sanders: Constantly, especially with the Internet. One part-time, unpaid security chair for the ABAA can’t do more than put a dent in it. But I’m very proud of having sent at least one book thief to San Quentin. I never claimed to be Sherlock Holmes, but I can guarantee you John Charles Gilkey ain’t no Moriarty, either.
(All images in this article courtesy Ken Sanders of kensanders.com)