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Steinbeck's pirate tale a golden find

February 18, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Word has spread fast among the tweed-clad Steinbeck scholars, the rare booksellers, the well-heeled collectors.

One of John Steinbeck's least distinguished works, "Cup of Gold" -- with prose that one critic calls more purple than the California Sierra -- will be sold to the highest bidder today for $20,000, $30,000 or even more.

Not only is the title exceedingly hard to find, but this first edition is inscribed by the Nobel laureate to his sister and has what one expert calls "a really rare dust jacket."

No matter that Steinbeck reportedly disliked his first novel, published in 1929, about a young 17th-century would-be pirate, and its jacket illustration of a buccaneer printed in florid yellow, blue and blood red.

"It was a novel he was ashamed of afterward," said scholar Paul Douglass.

But because so few first editions were printed, the book is far harder to find than say, "The Grapes of Wrath," considered Steinbeck's greatest work.

And that, collectors say, makes this volume a real find.

"Cup of Gold" and more than two dozen other first editions from the collection of Steinbeck's late sister will be auctioned today by Bonhams & Butterfields in a sale to be simulcast in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Proceeds will go toward renovating the Pacific Grove cottage where Steinbeck wrote "Tortilla Flat" and "Of Mice and Men." It was later the home of Elizabeth Steinbeck Ainsworth, the sister to whom Steinbeck inscribed a number of his books. Ainsworth died in 1992.

Experts say the collection is significant.

"It is an important sale for Steinbeck, because these are unique signed copies," said Bruce MacMakin, senior vice president at San Francisco's PBA Gallery, a Bonhams competitor.

This is a rarified world where collectors comb used book shops and the Internet in search of a volume with an eloquent inscription, a scribbled personal note tucked amid pages, or perhaps an irregular printing of the gilt-lettered spine.

The more read a book, the more it is loved, the less it may be worth.

"You want them to be as close to the original issue as possible, with as little evidence of handling," said Catherine Williamson, Bonhams' director of fine books and manuscripts.

The tiniest scuff on the spine or tear in a yellowed paper cover can lower the value by hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

The Steinbeck volumes on sale today are in excellent shape, but not pristine, experts said.

But those inscribed to Ainsworth are much-valued "association copies," because of the connection between the writer and his sister, said Dr. Phil Ralls, a USC professor of radiology who is editor of the Steinbeck Collectors Gazette.

The inscriptions are written in black ink inside the front cover, probably with a nib pen.

Scholars have taken special note of a first edition beige cloth issue of "Tortilla Flat" with these words inside its cover: "For my dear sister Elizabeth without whom I should never have known of the people about whom this book is written. John Steinbeck."

That could suggest the writer's sister had more influence on his work than critics have thought, Ralls said.

Another book that Bonhams calls "exceptional" is a copy of "The Pastures of Heaven" that includes an inscription in Spanish and, glued to a front page, an advertising circular promoting the novel's remainder copies.

The circular "is possibly the only surviving copy of this important early piece of ephemera," according to a Bonhams write-up.

Included in the sale are several drawings by artist and illustrator Mahlon Blaine, an important figure in Steinbeck's early career who designed the dust jackets and end papers of "Cup of Gold," and even introduced him to the editor who would publish his first novel.

This is the sort of collection that interests academics and that often is donated to museums or university libraries.

Scholars say they do not mind too much that the Steinbeck family is selling the books at auction, since that will allow the renovation of the Pacific Grove bungalow that was so central to the writer's life and work.

Steinbeck's characters are often down on their luck and short of funds, making these sky-high prices seem somewhat out of place.

Case in point: A first edition of the 1939 "The Grapes of Wrath" -- about one of the thousands of poor families dispossessed in the Dust Bowl -- is expected to sell for $20,000 to $30,000.

Steinbeck was hardly a man who valued books for their prices, noted scholar Douglass, interim director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State.

"I'm sure he would be quite alive to that irony," Douglass said.

"Here is a man who in his whole life never lived in a mansion, had nothing to do with conspicuous consumption."

And Steinbeck might not have relished attention focused on "Cup of Gold."

In fact, he apparently never kept a copy of the first edition, with its garish jacket.

A volume owned by the Steinbeck Center in San Jose, Douglass said, carries this inscription: "I wish I had a copy of this edition. John Steinbeck."


Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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