Antiques I bought for two Euros each in a bankruptcy sale.

One Man’s Bankruptcy is Another’s 250-Year-Old Treasure

The other day I had to make good on my promise to take my girlfriend shopping for her birthday. Luckily, she is not so high-maintenance that this post’s title refers to my own bankruptcy. Even better, she granted me permission to pop into a bookstore when I noticed a sign outside that said, `All Books, 2 Euros.’

A clearance sale of books is one of these things I have a very hard time passing up. They draw me in; I just have to have a look and would hate to have missed a good deal on an addition to my collection. This particular sale, however, was a bit tragic.

Bookstores aren’t doing too well. On one hand, books are much easier to order from places like Amazon. On the other hand, physical books themselves are on the decline, making way for e-books and their convenience. Altogether, the market for physical bookstores is shrinking.

Add to this a bit of mismanagement and a chain of 20-something bookstores goes out of business. The store that we now walked into had been in its prestigious location – on the Kalverstraat, right in the heart of Amsterdam – for some 70 or 80 years. Now it was forced to sell anything and everything it had for 2 Euros.

A Dismal Sight

The store was in a sad disarray. Employees were pulling open boxes of stock and haphazardly dumping their contents on the shelves, tables and now unused counters on the ground floor (there used to be four large stories of bookstore) for the customers to rummage through. They had made an effort to neatly put some of the books on display shelves, but the bulk was just arbitrarily stacked wherever they found room and dozens of cardboard boxes were still waiting to be unpacked in this same manner.

Those employees’ faces were rather long. Perhaps it was mostly because their futures were uncertain, but I like to think they must have felt what I felt as I regarded all of this: it really was a tragic scene.

Hunting for Treasure?

I wasn’t honestly expecting to find much worth buying, even for two bucks. This store opens onto one of the busiest streets of Amsterdam, it was crowded and I didn’t know how long this clearance sale had been going on for. I figured I was probably late to the funeral.

A few glances around showed me that most of what was left was trash; stacks of paperback novels that didn’t ring any bells, random art books, esoterica, self-help nonsense. I made the tour anyway, because, well, you never know, right? Insert foreshadowing.

I found myself in the back of the store, where one employee was emptying out a big crate of books onto a counter. `These are fresh, might be something in there, you might want to have a look.’ So, I did. What I found made me very happy, made me feel very lucky, but ultimately also made me a little sad.

At the very top of this page, in the featured image, you can see what I walked out of the store with. Let me just point out what might be obvious: these books are fairly old. They’re not in great shape, they’ve been rebound, but even those `new’ covers look like they’re from the early 20th century, at the latest.

The Loot

Let me just go ahead and show you what I ended up with. The small book in front isn’t dated, but I’ll make a guess and say it’s from the second half of the 19th century. It’s hard to say, because there is also no title to be found anywhere on the book. However, I do know who the author is (she died in 1853) and I can make an educated guess which one of her book titles belongs to this little book. If I’m right, it was first published in 1850. Of course, this could be a later printing; so I’ll go ahead and guess it was produced between 1850 and 1900.

In any case, it’s a little book of prose and poetry for children: a collection of short stories, plays and poems with a moralistic bend. Also, very pretty drawings, as you can see below. The caption says `Sensitivity is not the same as cowardice’ and the picture accompanies a little story about a boy who is laughed at by his friends because he finds pleasure in caring for a nest of birds. Next winter, he shows them, though, when one of his friends falls through the ice and he dives in to save him. `Don’t you believe, boys, that sensitivity and true courage cannot go hand in hand!’ it concludes.

Small colored engraving.

The next book, on top of the stack, is in better shape. It’s a history of the stock exchange of Amsterdam, written in celebration of the completion of the new exchange building (the Zocher Exchange) in 1845. Below is the title page. It’s a pretty cool piece with a couple of plates showing what the Exchange looked like at the time.

Title page of De Beurs van Amsterdam

The large volume on the bottom was the one that caught my attention first among the pile of books that was being plunked down; for obvious reasons. Unfortunately it’s not in very good condition: in the picture above, the little book is where it is mainly to keep the spine of the large one from falling off. The volume used to have a very nice leather cover, as is still evident from the beaten spine, but it’s been bound anew, although nicely so.

It’s an old French work, the Histoire de Napoléon by De Norvins, as you can see on the title page below.

Title page of De Norvin's Histoire de Napoléon.

The book is pretty famous; it was written by a contemporary of Napoléon and an administrator in the Emperor’s government. Most notable, however, are the images found in the book: it’s absolutely chock full of beautiful engravings, such as the ones below of Napoléon at Waterloo and Napoléon rushing back to Paris after his Russian campaign went south. All in all, a nice addition to my collection, despite of its state.

Napoléon rushing back to Paris from Moscow.

Napoléon rushing back to Paris from Moscow in a sled.

Napoléon at Waterloo.

Napoléon at Waterloo.

The Bang

As I leafed through these books, I expressed my unbelief at the idea that they would really sell me these for 2 Euros, but the guy unpacking them emphasized: `Yup. Everything’s gotta go. Everything for 2 Euros.’ Well, that’s a pretty sweet deal, and I took it. The bookstore we were at used to have a fairly decent antiquarian section, which I had wistfully walked through a couple of times before. These books were probably from there, and are likely worth a bit more than the 2 Euros they went for that day. One of the books (the one about the Exchange) still has a price penciled onto the first page: EUR 90,-. But bankrupt is bankrupt; everything had to go, and had to go fast with minimal effort.

And then there’s the fourth book. I saved the best for last. It’s also not in particularly good shape, and it’s only one volume out of a set: it’s part of a voluminous history of Amsterdam. Below you can see a part of the title page, specifically the part that shocked me a little when I saw it. In the store, I assumed my Roman numerals were rusty and that I was misreading the publishing date. However, when I got home and took another look, I had to conclude that I had read it correctly: this book is from 1763.

MDCCLXIII, or 1763.

This book’s title page says MDCCLXIII, or 1763.

That’s right. 1763. This book is 250 years old. It predates the French revolution. It was published before Beethoven was born. It’s older than the American Declaration of Independence.

This history of Amsterdam is now, by far, the oldest book in my collection, and I paid two lousy Euros to own it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m happy and excited and I can’t believe my luck in walking into that store at just the right time to pick up these books! But in a sense, this is tragic. It feels almost criminal for this book to have passed hands like this. I don’t know whether it happened due to negligence or necessity, but an antique like this shouldn’t have ended up in the two-Euro clearance. What other gems left that store for token money, I wonder?

Bittersweet

So, that’s how a 250-year-old book was thrown into my lap. I’m happy; I’m thrilled! All these books were well worth digging through those tragic piles for (as well as the ridiculous amount of money I laid down for them, of course) and this 18th century piece, despite its condition, despite it being part of a larger set, is the pride of my little collection.

But it’s also saddening to have seen them tossed to the birds because a bookstore went bankrupt; to have had to pick them off of the store’s corpse, in essence. I don’t know what they intend to do with the eight bucks I gave them in trade, but I doubt those will make a difference. All I can do is hope that anything else worth saving that ended up in clearance found a good home.

Marco is a theoretical physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules and working towards his PhD. Other passions include literature and history.

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