Col­lect­ing rare books is a high­brow pas­sion that can also pro­duce high in­vest­ment re­turns, writes Ru­pert Walker

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

Col­lect­ing rare books is a high­brow pas­sion that can also bring high in­vest­ment re­turns

Scarcity is a key fac­tor that de­ter­mines the value of any item that’s re­quired for ex­is­tence or de­sired for plea­sure. Land and nat­u­ral re­sources fall into the for­mer cat­e­gory, and col­lecta­bles such as clas­sic cars and fine art into the lat­ter. Rare books are cer­tainly col­lected for plea­sure, but they have an ad­di­tional char­ac­ter­is­tic shared by postage stamps—as email is ren­der­ing tra­di­tional mail in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant, e-read­ers such as the Kin­dle are fo­cus­ing our at­ten­tion on the shift away from tra­di­tional media forms.

“The book mar­ket is very strong to­day and was only marginally af­fected by the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Rare books gen­er­ally don’t fall in value and, if in top con­di­tion, they can av­er­age an­nual re­turns of 10 to 15 per cent over 10 to 15 years,” says Max Hasler, a book depart­ment ex­ec­u­tive at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auc­tions in Lon­don. “But you must buy the best copies—if they’re cheap, then there’s a good rea­son.”

To be­gin with, the edi­tion of the book must be rare. It should also be im­por­tant, in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion and pos­si­bly have an in­ter­est­ing prove­nance. Books from Napoleon’s li­brary com­mand a pre­mium of 10 to 15 times, for in­stance, ac­cord­ing to Cas­san­dra Hat­ton, a se­nior spe­cial­ist of fine books and manuscripts at Bon­hams in New York.

When a book has some­thing spe­cial that sets it apart from other edi­tions, it also adds to the value. For ex­am­ple, first edi­tions of F Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gatsby with­out a dust jacket fetch any­where from US$3,000

to US$5,000. There aren’t many that have sur­vived with an in­tact dust jacket, and those that have can fetch be­tween US$180,000 to US$300,000, depend­ing on the con­di­tion. If the work is also signed by Fitzger­ald, then the pre­mium is even higher, says Hat­ton.

There are two main seg­ments in the mar­ket: land­mark publi­ca­tions and mod­ern first edi­tions. Land­marks have literary or sci­en­tific im­por­tance, are very well known and can be af­fected by con­tem­po­rary trends. A first edi­tion of the Guten­berg Bi­ble sold at auc­tion for US$2.2 mil­lion in 1978 and an in­com­plete edi­tion sold for US$5.4 mil­lion in 1987. This June, just eight con­sec­u­tive leaves of the Guten­berg Bi­ble, which is ar­guably the most prized book of all time, went un­der the ham­mer for US$700,000 in New York. An­drea Maz­zoc­chi of Lon­don-based rare book and man­u­script spe­cial­ist Bernard Quar­itch es­ti­mates that a com­plete first edi­tion of the Guten­berg Bi­ble, which is one of the old­est books in the world, would now sell for an im­pres­sive US$45 mil­lion.

Science and pol­i­tics are big busi­ness, too. At a Dreweatts & Bloomsbury sale on May 21, a first edi­tion from 1791 of po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Thomas Paine’s in­flu­en­tial The Rights of Man sold for £130,000. It was rare be­cause it was part of an orig­i­nal print be­fore Paine trans­ferred the rights to another pub­lisher. Charles Dar­win’s The Ori­gin of the Species with its orig­i­nal cloth bind­ing sold for £27,000 in 2003—and for £110,000 just 10 years later.

Per­haps even more spec­tac­u­lar, a hand­writ­ten man­u­script by com­puter pi­o­neer Alan Tur­ing, drafted while he was lead­ing the ef­fort to build the Enigma code de­cryp­tion ma­chine dur­ing World War II, sold for more than US$1 mil­lion in April at Bon­hams in New York. The Os­car-win­ning 2014 film The Im­i­ta­tion Game tells the story of Tur­ing’s amaz­ing pro­fes­sional en­deav­ours and his dif­fi­cult pri­vate life as a clos­eted ho­mo­sex­ual, and cer­tainly helped drive in­ter­est in the work at auc­tion. Tur­ing had pre­sented the man­u­script to a close friend and added some highly per­sonal notes at the end—it was later be­queathed to the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge.

As for mod­ern works, value is largely de­ter­mined by its rar­ity, so early books with a lim­ited print run writ­ten by a fledg­ling au­thor who later be­came fa­mous are in high de­mand. In these cases, the book must be in pris­tine con­di­tion and should have its orig­i­nal dust jacket. A per­sonal ded­i­ca­tion or an­no­ta­tions by the au­thor can also boost the price. Chil­dren’s au­thors are also pop­u­lar with adults, both for nos­tal­gia and in­vest­ment pur­poses. For ex­am­ple, Roald Dahl’s works are in mas­sive de­mand, while JK Rowl­ing’s first edi­tions com­manded high prices al­most im­me­di­ately, once the enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity of the Harry Pot­ter se­ries was es­tab­lished.

Se­ri­ous buy­ers go to spe­cial­ist book­sell­ers and auc­tion houses such as Bon­hams and Christie’s. At Lon­don auc­tions, there is a 24 per cent buyer’s com­mis­sion, whereas at book­shops there can be a two- to three-fac­tor mark-up, though the price is of­ten lower than at auc­tion, says Hasler. Online auc­tion sites such as PFC Auc­tions and PBA Gal­leries, and deal­ers such as Abebooks, Bi­b­lio, Vial­ibri and ebay are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar sources for ac­quir­ing rare and ob­scure works.

For big-ticket items, buy­ers should be­ware of try­ing to han­dle ev­ery­thing them­selves. Hat­ton cau­tions, “While there are many venues for col­lec­tors to ac­quire rare books, they should al­ways en­sure they deal with ex­perts in the field who have well-es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tions and who guar­an­tee their ma­te­rial. It takes many years to ac­quire the skills and the knowl­edge nec­es­sary to be an ex­pert in rare books.”

Although Asian books and manuscripts still make up a small part of the mar­ket, key items com­mand high prices. In June, an in­scribed copy of Mao Ze­dong’s Quo­ta­tions (also known as “the lit­tle red book”) sold at a Bon­ham’s auc­tion in New York for US$68,750.

In­deed, in Asia, the in­ter­est is pri­mar­ily for works that doc­u­ment each coun­try’s history and cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to Hasler. In Main­land China, for in­stance, there is bur­geon­ing in­ter­est in early books by Western­ers de­scrib­ing their cul­tural and re­li­gious en­coun­ters there. A unique first edi­tion of Fran­cisco González de San Pe­dro’s Shengjiao Cuoyao ( A Sum­mary of the Holy Teach­ings) from 1706 is val­ued at US$45,000 by Bernard Quar­itch. Its con­tent re­flects the Do­mini­can at­ti­tude to Chi­nese be­liefs.

Bernard Quar­itch or­gan­ises the only an­ti­quar­ian book fair in Asia—from Novem­ber 20 to 22 this year, 35 deal­ers from around the world will con­gre­gate in Hong Kong to show­case their rarest wares. It’s a great time to get into what ap­pears to be a grow­ing de­mand for rare books.


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