Bibliophiles beware. Reading books is addictive enough — collecting them can take you to a whole new level of madness, says Imogen Russell Williams
WHEN I WAS a teenager, my mother objected to buying children’s books for me in hardback, arguing, perfectly reasonably, that if I wanted regressive light reading I should borrow it from the library. In 1995, however, a determined campaign of persuasion bore unexpected golden fruit, leaving me the proud owner of a first edition of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. This is the first and rarest volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which currently has a mint value of around £4,000.
My own copy isn’t mint, nor is it signed. I’m not at all a serious collector — I just happened to have an indulgent parent and a stroke of luck. But in one glorious, heart-pounding moment, when I recently realised the identifiers were all correct and the volume I’d whinged for was comparatively rare and sought-after, I was introduced to the addictive, exciting nature of the book-collecting world.
It’s an obsessive, pulse-pounding place to visit, as is well documented in Susan Hill’s most recent ghostly novel, The Small Hand, which features a book dealer catering for the very top end of the market. Adam Snow sources books for clients who want, for example, signed first editions of the complete works of Virginia Woolf.
In fact, his most valued client yearns to acquire a Shakespeare first folio, which the dealer duly gets for him at a remote French monastery (perhaps Hill’s nod to Oriel College’s real-life sale of its own first folio to the late John Paul Getty in 2003, for a reputed £3.5 million). This kind of collector obviously has serious money to spend, but ultimately, as Margaret Ford, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s, argues, he or she tends to be driven by much the same urge as the bibliophile on a smaller scale.
Ford says that, in her experience, the primary reason people collect books is because they love them. ‘I’m wary when people talk about investment-buying,’ she says. ‘It’s difficult to predict how value will fluctuate.’ ‘Gold-standard’ investment titles must have serious name-recognition value — a Shakespeare folio or quarto, for instance, is not going to fall out of favour, and neither will copies of Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But there are peaks and troughs in the books market, which, as Ford points out, are often driven by events in the wider world.
Contemporary books about the South Sea Bubble, for example, saw greatly increased interest from collectors in the wake of the latest global financial crisis, and Harry Potter fervour has not yet died down, with signed first editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone continuing to realise sums in excess of £10,000 at auction. Whether they will continue to do so in 100 years’ time, or even after the last film comes out, Ford says, is a matter of opinion.
Christopher Sokol, of Sokol Books in Mayfair, is hedging his bets. ‘What often happens with something like Harry Potter is that you get a period shortly after the appearance of the books when there’s the first big recognition, and at that point the prices begin to soar. You then get a levelling off and a bit of a drop, because that first huge “I-must-have” enthusiasm has waned. The question then is, having gone nowhere for, say, a decade, do they then go back up again because they’re still something that people really value? That has happened to Tolkien. Whether it will happen to Potter, I really don’t know.’
Peter Selley, senior director and auctioneer at Sotheby’s, who has seen several record-breaking sales of Potter first editions, is more sanguine. ‘I would say they [the Potter books] will last, for a number of reasons. Whatever one thinks of them as works of literature — and there are voices on all sides — as a phenomenon, they will endure. People will still buy the books, however they’re perceived, in 100 years’ time.’
Selley comments, too, that the Potter books have in some ways actually changed the nature of the books market: ‘It’s the first time I can ever recall where a first edition within two or three years was making £10,000 or £15,000. Normally it takes a while — like a generation — for the dust to settle before a work is established as a collectible item. But I would say that that time frame has collapsed in recent years.’
Another factor that can drive fashions in book collecting is TV and film exposure, but it’s not to be relied on as a guarantee of increases in value. It’s more likely to augment the asking prices of already sought-after titles — first editions of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, for instance — than to catapult a less-favoured author into stellar investment territory.
IN THE BOOK-COLLECTING game, in fact, it’s a combination of knowledge, patience and instinct that pays off. As Sokol says: ‘The collector who does best in financial terms is generally the one who leaves the biggest gap between buying and selling. What is difficult to do, unless you’re very lucky, is to buy a book from a dealer in Year One and then sell it to a dealer in Year Two at a big profit.’ This, again, can be ascribed to fluctuations in fashion — something to which, as all the experts agree, more recent publications are particularly susceptible.
As Sokol points out: ‘At one period, people might kill to get a first edition of, say, Somerset Maugham, whereas 25 years later, who cares?’ His advice for the novice or beginner collector includes a valuable admonition: ‘Beware the things that are just currently in vogue and aren’t actually intrinsically rare. The one thing that does have a very big impact on the price is rarity, but real rarity is when you might have to wait 30 or 40 years for another copy to come on to the market.’
Sokol also believes that condition has become paramount in book collecting, contributing to steep differences in worth between pristine and patchy copies of the same title. Selley agrees: ‘People are more concerned about original condition — so, for instance, 50 or 60 years ago [antique] books would appear that had facsimile leaves, not all of which would be picked up; that doesn’t happen now.’
Provenance has also become more important than ever, with ‘palimpsests’ of ownership — particularly among copies of books owned or circulated among people notable themselves as literary or historical figures — commanding significant premiums. If the book you buy has been scribbled in by a famous previous owner, their cavalier treatment of it is likely to have increased your investment’s worth.
Collectors at the top end of the market, especially British ones, generally prefer to preserve a glamorous anonymity, modestly wary of ‘appearing in the headlights’ or of having to ward off determined dealers beating a path to their door. One notable collector was willing to answer my questions only on condition that this anonymity was respected.
He told me why he collects: ‘I get an electric, immediate sense of connection with the past when I handle a momentous book, especially one that’s been owned by another significant figure. My books don’t represent a “value store” to me in terms of how much they’d fetch at auction — their value resides in what they are, in and of themselves; these artefacts that played an important role in our artistic history, and that have passed from that time directly into our own.’
It’s an enticing prospect. But if you begin to think about building up your own library or collection, be wary. John Baxter makes it clear, in his 2003 memoir A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict, that book collecting, once tried, is horrendously habit-forming. After stumbling across a children’s book by Graham Greene, The Little Horse Bus, at a book stall and buying it for 50p, Baxter tumbles headlong into nail-biting auction-bidding, insanely lengthy journeys to visit strangers on spec and the handing over of staggering sums of money, without ever once looking back.
In short, bibliophilia, by all accounts, and even from my own limited experience, is something of an adrenaline junkie’s pastime — and if you do want to indulge in it, it’s best done for the love, not the money.
Illustration by Frann Preston-Gannon