Cover stars: Our top tips on collecting antiquarian books

Words by
Charlotte McManus

18th April 2018

Whether 20 years old or 400 years old, a book can be eminently collectable, but find out what makes it a page-turner at the auction house before adding to your collection

Though online culture looms large and consuming content via screens is the norm, surprisingly, the market for antiquarian books is booming. Unscathed by the rise in popularity of Kindles and ebooks, rare tomes continue to generate strong commercial interest, meaning now is an excellent time to start a collection.

Of course, the marketplace for books is one of enormous variety. Prized items can be found in every genre and era, from modern literature and vintage travel tomes to collections of essays, natural history texts and even classic children’s stories.

“While a landmark work such as the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species recently sold for £150,000, a first edition of Peter Rabbit went for £75,000,” says Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington Rare Books. “We also purchased an Islamic manuscript for a customer for £1m. Sales of that nature certainly don’t come about every day, but there are moments when items will be bought for hair-raising sums.”

Moreover, it is not always apparent if an antiquarian book will be considered valuable. Many collectors assume that a book’s worth grows with time, but there are numerous factors to consider, including its edition, condition, provenance and desirability. How many copies of this particular book were printed? Has it been well preserved? Is there an interesting story behind it — an author’s signature, for example, or a famous owner? Is there a reason it might be in demand at this time?

For instance, though first editions of 20th-century literature are commonplace enough to surface even in the shabbiest of charity shops, a perfectly preserved copy, or one inscribed by the author, could be worth thousands, while a much rarer 17th-century text could have zeroes knocked off if presented in poor condition.

“Age alone doesn’t confer value. Even if it’s a sought-after edition, if it has been badly repaired with glue or sticky tape, it needs to be pretty special to have commercial value — perhaps inscribed by the author to a close friend, or annotated by an important historical figure,” explains Tim Bryars, committee member of the Antiquarian Book Association (or ABA for short).

Even contemporary works can prove unexpectedly valuable. Last November, a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone inscribed by JK Rowling hit a new world record at Bonhams’ Fine Books & Manuscripts Sale, where it sold for £106,250, rather than the estimated £30,000-40,000. This is even more remarkable when taken into account that the book is only 20 years old and that its author is still alive.

“We also had the first atlas of England and Wales (from 1579) in the sale, which made £106,250, the same as the Harry Potter,” says Bonhams’ Head of Books, Matthew Haley. “Age has nothing to do with value — it could be 20 years old or 400 years old.” Of course, these days, the internet makes it far easier for buyers to source specific editions, although this rather removes the “thrill of the chase”, unlike attending nail-biting auctions or finding a treasure after hours spent scouring dusty shelves in bookshops. As such, the focus is shifting from snagging previously hard-to-find copies to unearthing books with a unique quality. “People are really going for books that are unique in some way, such as a special binding or inscription. It could be an annotation in the margins, which can add value if old and interesting, as it shows how books were viewed in the past,” says Haley.

Inscription
A unique inscription can add value to books. Image: Bonhams

A unique inscription can add value to books. Image: Bonhams

For those wanting to start a collection, look to dealers and booksellers belonging to the ABA — the oldest trade association of its kind — as they can guarantee the authenticity of their antiquarian tomes. As a rule, bigger names tend to hold their value over more obscure titles, and rare titles in good condition — ideally with an interesting provenance — can fetch a return if owners take care of them for 10 years or more.

“Buy the best examples you can possibly afford, from people who know what they are doing — superficially similar books can be worth vastly different amounts of money,” says Bryars. “Ultimately, buy only what you love — if your books don’t up in value, you will still have enjoyed them.”

This spring, make a beeline for Chiswick Auctions’ Printed Books & Manuscripts event is on 17 May. Additionally, ABA Rare Book Fair London (24-26 May) is moving to a new location, Battersea Evolution. The fair, that will be opened by avid rare book collector Sir David Attenborough, showcases volumes from more than 160 British and international booksellers. peterharrington.co.uk; aba.org.uk; bonhams.com/departments/BOK; chiswickauctions.co.uk; rarebookfairlondon.com