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How can I start investing in rare books?

How can I start investing in rare books?

If you’re prepared to wait a few decades, collecting first editions can reap big rewards

If you’re prepared to wait a few decades, collecting first editions can reap big rewards

Anthony Gardner | October 10th 2017

Ian Fleming is a key figure in the world of rare books, and not just because a first edition of “Casino Royale” can fetch over £100,000. Fleming, who created James Bond, was a serious collector, specialising in books that helped to shape modern thought, and in 1963 lent more than 40 to a landmark exhibition called “Printing and the Mind of Man”. “The 650 books in PMM, as it’s known, are the nearest thing there is to a blue-chip investment,” says Bogislav Winner, a London dealer. “They have the strongest record of going up in value, and some people collect them and nothing else.” The range is wide – from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” to “Alice in Wonderland”.

Ed Maggs of Maggs Brothers, one of the world’s largest antiquarian booksellers, observes that the market is becoming increasingly polarised between “the best and the rest”. Remarkable books tend to go up in value, while less exciting ones go down. “Only a few books have staying power,” explains Winner, “so you have to be incredibly good at choosing them, and you need to hold them for a long time to get a decent return.” A copy of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” dating from 1517, auctioned in May for €1.1m, is a case in point: the owner had kept it for 32 years before cashing in.

The ideal book for a collector or investor is a famous work in a first edition of which only a few copies survive. It needs to be in very good condition: a pristine dustjacket adds enormously to the value, as does the author’s signature and an interesting inscription. Anthony Smith, another London dealer, points to a copy of “Brideshead Revisited” which sold for £52,000 last year at Sotheby’s: “It was one of just 50 printed for Evelyn Waugh’s friends, and because it was inscribed to the Duchess of Devonshire it fetched three times what it would have done otherwise.”

Like all collectibles, books are subject to changes in taste, often driven by nostalgia. “It’s generational,” says Simon Foster-Ogg, another dealer. “People are attracted to things that were exciting when they were young, so at the moment beatnik writers are in fashion. A signed first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ recently sold for £20,000. But John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole, who used to be keenly collected, have fallen right off the scale, and even contemporary authors like Martin Amis have dropped off.”

The internet is partly responsible, allowing buyers to see that modern first editions are much more common than they previously realised, and easier to lay hands on. Abebooks.com, a used-books marketplace owned by Amazon, should be the first port of call of any prospective collector.

Nationalism also plays a part: emerging economies often produce wealthy buyers keen to acquire an important part of their country’s heritage. The record for a 20th-century book is held by a copy of “Ulysses” by James Joyce which fetched £275,000 in 2009. In recent years books from China have surged in value. In June, an early edition of “Dream of the Red Chamber”, an 18th-century novel about two aristocratic Chinese families, fetched around 24m yuan ($3.6m) at auction in Beijing.

Scientific books, by authors from Isaac Newton to Alan Turing, have generally gained in value over the last decade for similar reasons: a new breed of technology millionaires have begun to see them as trophies. In 2009, £70,000 was considered a stiff price for Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”; you can now pay £120,000 for it. Art books can do well if the artist concerned is in vogue – Andy Warhol’s “Wild Raspberries” commands a similar price to “Howl”. But in the market for art books, fashion is often trumped by volume. Whoever the artist, says Titus Boeder of Maggs, if the book is published in a big print run “it’s likely to fall in value as soon as you buy it.” 

Boeder recommends focussing on an area few others do – “the more specific and unusual the better”. An expert on the Far East, he discovered an untapped market for Japanese photographic books of the 1950s and 1960s, two collections of which he sold to the British Museum. He also built up a collection of books on the Jesuits in 17th- and 18th-century China which went last year for over £1m.

Anthony Smith suggests looking at genres “that snobs tend to dismiss”, such as science fiction, which attract obsessive followings in a way that mainstream literature seldom does. Some classics already command high prices – at the time of writing a copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is being offered on AbeBooks for more than £12,000. But if ever there was a case of buyer beware, this is it: the binding is asbestos. 

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