Investing in rare books

Boats and baubles are all very well, but for a collectable that's as precious as it is personal, you can't beat a good book.

Courtesy Christie's Images.
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It is the stories behind the stories that really appeal. The tantalising inscriptions, long-forgotten messages and illegible scribbles. It’s the four lines of verse penned by the author in the front of a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “When in this book you take a look / My little sweethearth [sic] Beth / Just think I write the whole of it / And yet am yours ‘til death”. Or the message from Ian Fleming to his close friend and confidant, Robert Harling, in the opening pages of a first edition of Live and Let Die: “To Robert These fragrant pages. From the author. 1954”.

”Books are a physical touchstone to the past,” says Margaret Ford, the international head of the books department at Christie’s. “And something that makes it personal, like a signed copy - that association is extremely special. Just knowing that book was actually in that author’s hands at some point in time, or knowing that I’m holding something that Churchill once held. Or owning an early edition of Virgil from 1470 - something that is more than 500 years old - and being able to hold that in your hands.”

If the age of the book is, as the naysayers would suggest, well and truly over, then it’s certainly not showing at the upper echelons of the rare book market. In June, a newly discovered copy of the second edition of Virgil’s Opera was sold for more than £1 million (Dh5.7 million). At the same Christie’s auction, a set of two books and autographed letters by Charles Dickens sold for nearly £50,000 (Dh286,000), 10 times the amount they were expected to fetch. When the aforementioned copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went up for auction in 2002, it was expected to sell for between US$60,000 and $80,000; it fetched a handsome $152,500 (Dh560,000). A year earlier, a copy of T E Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was sold for almost $1 million (Dh3.6 million) at auction - ironic, perhaps, given that at the time of publishing, “Lawrence of Arabia” refused to make any money from the book and was, as a result, left saddled with debt.

This is a market driven by passion, nostalgia and, ultimately, the love of a good story - and emphasis is increasingly being placed on books that are in some way “special”. In essence, this means items that are signed, inscribed or hold some kind of remarkable association. In the case of those surprisingly successful Dickens novels, they were addressed to the American poet and journalist, William Cullen Bryant, and offer a snapshot of the mutual admiration shared by these two like-minded men on either side of the Atlantic.

But in a market that is essentially driven by emotion, special can mean many things. People may value a book because it is something they read as a child and is a source of happy memories, or is by an author they admire and relate to, or of a genre that brings them joy.

Saying that, in the wake of the global economic slowdown, there has also been a “flight to safety”, says Ford, leading to a heightened interest in the classics. Household names by recognised authors, like The Great Gatsby and The Wizard of Oz, are proving particularly popular. The musings of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy will never, it seems, go out of style.

Condition has always been key in the rare books business, but is now more important than ever. “Many things can increase a book’s value. Desirability and scarcity - or supply and demand if you are an economist - are the main two factors. Collectors usually crave the earliest edition of a book of significance, so true first editions are very important. Signed copies are also of value. However, many other factors can come into play, such as the book’s condition. Condition is vital in the used and rare book business,” says Richard Davies from Abe Books, an online marketplace populated by booksellers from around the world who sell some of the rarest and most collectable books in the history of literature.

This includes everything from handwritten manuscripts created before the invention of the printing press to first editions and signed copies from literary legends such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, Twain, Wells, Woolf and Kipling.

One of the highest-selling books to ever feature on the site was a copy of The Hobbit from 1937, which sold for $65,000 (Dh238,740). “Only 1,500 copies were printed and it’s a book of huge social significance and practically created the fantasy genre,” Davies explains.

While fiction is the dominant genre when it comes to rare books, there are a number of niche areas within the industry that present opportunity. For example, Dr Jörn Günther Rare Books specialises in significant books dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries, which range in price from €60,000 to €10,000,000. Illuminated medieval manuscripts are the company’s particular specialism and it currently has a copy of the Douze Caesars dating from 1515 to 1520 on sale for €3,200,000 (Dh15.47m), along with a Compendium of King Juan II of Castile and Leon dating from 1425 and costing €2,200,000 (Dh10.64m).

Middle Eastern manuscripts are also holding their value well. “The Middle East is an interesting market, particularly when it comes to manuscripts, but also books related to the region, like The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. We have good interest from this part of the world, not only in terms of the value of Middle Eastern books and manuscripts, but also the number of buyers from the region,” says Ford.

Regardless of where you are in the world, when it comes to rare books, condition and completion may be the magic words, but buying a book should always be a process driven by emotion - regardless of its price. “The thing that should really inform your decision is you should love it and enjoy it,” Ford concludes. “Listen to your own voice.”