Investing in Rare Books: What You Should Know
May 19, 2019
Collecting books is primarily undertaken for pleasure, but there are some lucrative investments to be made if you know what to look out for. From first editions to limited runs and signed copies, collecting rare books can become a fascinating hobby. There may be a box of books in the attic with treasure hidden within, but how do you know which are worth less than the paper they’re printed on?
Starting a collection
For novice investors, it may seem like a good idea to grab every old book you find, whether they’re from online auctions or second-hand shops. However, a collection will be worth more if it has a focus or a theme. An entire collection of the Bronte sisters’ books will be a better investment than a few single books from various series. Likewise, an entire collection of herbals from the nineteenth century would be of particular interest to certain collectors at auction, so specialising can be a way to make your investment really pay off.
When you have an idea of which books you want to buy, find out from a specialist dealer or website which edition is the most valuable. It’s common sense to think that the first edition is always going to be worth more, but actually later editions can be surprisingly sought after, especially if they contain additional illustrations or amendments. A first edition of William Camden’s Britannia can fetch up to £1,000, but a later edition with maps can be worth up to ten times that amount. Research is everything.
Other tips for novice collectors include having somewhere dry and free of dust to keep your investment. Slipcases can protect books further, and particularly fragile tomes can be rebound by a specialist. Do consult an antiquarian book expert before doing this though, so its value isn’t adversely affected.
What factors affect price?
In 2015, a list called the Rare Book Index was compiled, listing the 30 most valuable 20th-century classics. A first edition of one of these titles can net anywhere between £2,550 and £247,000. The latter is the potential selling price for a first edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story itself is as popular as ever, with a feature film having been produced in 2013. The first edition has increased by a staggering 1,372% in value over the past two decades, so a copy in excellent condition could be one to hang on to for now.
The biggest appreciation in value can be seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Over 20 years, the value rose over 2,500%: from a mere £190 to £5100. It’s thought that the political themes within the book keep it fresh and relevant for each new generation, adding to its appeal at auction.
Physical factors that affect the price of rare books include the condition of the pages and the dust jackets. Dust jackets are fairly rare these days and even books that were once sold with dust jackets to protect them tend to have lost them over the years. Some were thrown away by the initial purchaser, or even by the cashier as they were sold. Finding a first edition with a dust jacket intact can make a surprising difference to the price. A first edition of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon can fetch £1,500 at auction. Find a copy with the dust jacket, and you can increase that amount to up to £75,000.
In contrast, a book that has yellowed pages and what is known as ‘foxing’ can actually increase in value. Foxing refers to brown spots on the page; an unavoidable ravage of age that affects most books at some point, even those that are meticulously cared for. Enthusiastic collectors see these natural flaws as confirmation of the age and integrity of the book, and will sometimes pay more than if the copy is pristine and paper-white.
Which titles fetch the most at auction?
Rare books have been known to sell for millions at auction. A copy of US ornithology rarity The Birds of America sold for $11.5 million in 2010. Only 119 copies of this book are known to exist today. The 18th century Traité Des Arbres Fruitiers, a treatise on fruit trees, fetched $4.5 million in 2006, making it one of the most expensive books ever sold. This five-volume set shows the importance of creating themed collections, and the value a specialist collector will place on specific volumes.
Not every book is worth millions, of course. A great example of a good return on an affordable investment is the Penguin paperback classics. These reprints of classics were launched in the 1930s for a few pennies. It’s possible to find them in charity shops or second-hand bookshops for around five pounds, if you’re lucky. They can sell for anything up to £100 each. So, while they’re not bringing in millions, they are a huge return on a very small investment if looked after properly. These Penguins are characterised by their brightly coloured covers, so are easy to spot. Look for bright orange for fiction, crime stories in green, biographies in dark blue and travel books in pink. A whole collection will appreciate in value over time.
What to avoid
Don’t presume that buying online will be better value than visiting your local bookseller or specialist dealer. An item may seem cheaper online, but you can rarely check the genuine condition for yourself, making it a risky purchase. Rare book dealers have a reputation to protect, so will rarely overcharge, and visiting a store or individual in person means you can see and maybe even handle the books before buying. This gives you a much better sense of the condition of the item.
A book in terrible condition, even if it’s a rare first edition, may not be worth very much at all. There’s a difference between a bit of foxing and pages which are crumbling to dust at every touch. Paying a small amount for a rare find is only a good bargain if it’s going to last, intact, until you intend to sell it. Always buy the best condition that you can reasonably afford, as avid collectors will look for the same.
It’s rare to have a huge return on a book purchased very cheaply, but with a bit of knowledge, rare book investment can be a lucrative choice. Find a specialist bookseller who can give you advice on what books are worth something. They will be able to advise you on what to keep and what to sell. Use websites such as AbeBooks and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association to view a wide range of books and get an idea of the prices they currently go for at auction.
Focus on a theme for your collection, whether it’s classical authors, one favourite writer of your own, or a subject matter that will appeal to specialist collectors. Visit antiquarian bookshops with an idea of what you want and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Book collectors are always happy to find a like-minded soul and are generally happy to share their knowledge.
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