Christmas Books Special: Limited editions

Can you put a price on a classic?
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If you find a book-shaped package under your tree this year, don't assume the giver is a cheapskate. Instead of the latest Jamie Oliver or zedlebrity autobiography, bought at a knock-down price, the wrapping paper may hide a collector's item that cost a cool £5,000.

This Christmas collectors are experiencing a bonanza of special editions that buck the trend for cut price, low production value books. Leading the field is Penguin Classics, which commissioned blue chip designers from shoesmith Manola Blahnik to fashion icon Paul Smith to makeover five of its titles - Madam Bovary, Tender is the Night, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Crime and Punishment and The Idiot - to celebrate the imprint's 60th anniversary.

Blahnick and Smith, together with Sam Taylor-Wood, Ron Arad and the hip graphic design outfit Fuel, were asked to create new looks for books of their own choice. Each copy is signed and numbered and supplied in a Perspex presentation box, and retails at a cool £100. They're already selling out.

If you find a set in your Christmas stocking with the number one written inside the cover, someone loves you very much. From tomorrow until Wednesday 13 December the first copy of all five 1,000 print runs is to be sold for charity in an auction through The set is expected to reach well above the £500 cover price.

Blahnik's treatment of Madame Bovary (a designer doodle of floral swirls), Smith's Lady Chatterley's Lover (hand embroidered woodland flowers - "tender, not vulgar", according to Smith) and Arad's The Idiot (no cover, just glue, threads and words that appear to move thanks to a fresnel lens built into the presentation box), have proven the most popular so far, according to Waterstones' Piccadilly senior bookseller Jane Grace. "We've had collectors in buying whole sets, and one person bought a set for themselves and then an extra six copies as gifts," she says. More used to shifting cheap-as-chips bestsellers, she looks shocked at the popularity of the series.

Penguin Classics publisher Adam Freudenheim had the initial brainwave. He was wary of Franklin Mint-style collectables, in which the words "limited" is stretched beyond its usual boundaries. "We always wanted the books to be a limited edition, so we kept it to 1,000 because it is incredibly important when you say that you are doing something limited that it truly is limited."

You might think £100 for a classic novel is pricey, but Penguin's efforts are among the most affordable "premium" books available this Christmas. There are special editions of U2 by U2, retailing at £80, and a £250 edition of Bent Rej's The Rolling Stones: In the Beginning. A limited edition of David and Elizabeth Emanuel's A Dress for Diana, which includes a swatch from the original bolt of silk used for Diana's wedding dress, will set you back £1,000. Added to these are rare, signed limited editions of John le Carré's The Mission Song, Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night and Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith - though they're a snip at £30 each.

Top of the list is Manchester United Opus from Kraken. Weighing a colossal 38kg, hand stitched, packed with high quality photos and articles on the club's history from Sir Matt Busby, his Babes and George Best, it is bound in so much flame-red leather it could have been sold by DFS.

The Limited Edition, numbered 501 to 10,000, and signed by Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, retails at £3,000. But if you really want to prove your love for a Red Devils fan, you will need to splash out £4,250 on the Icons Edition, of which there are 500 copies, each signed by Denis Law, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona, as well as Sirs Alex and Bobby. With 75 million United fans around the globe, Kraken is confident that they will sell out.

Over at the offices of a rival premium publisher, Genesis Publications, which has built its reputation producing signed limited editions about rock stars from Bowie to the Beatles, as well as sport, art and historical manuscripts, there is scepticism about the collectability of Manchester United Opus. Genesis titles, which include Summer of Love by the Beatles' producer George Martin, retail for between £250 and £600 and are limited to print runs of 3,000. "To me 10,000 is not a limited edition," sniffs Genesis's sales manager, David Williams. Their print runs are usually split into two; "deluxe" editions (up to 350 copies) have higher production values and more autographs.

Williams is uncomfortable at the idea of Genesis editions turning up on eBay: "99 per cent of the people who buy our books would never think of getting rid of them," he says. "When someone dies, that's when the ghouls come out and they start calling. George Harrison was a close friend of the company, so the day he died, we removed any remaining copies of his books from sale out of respect."

Such fine sensibilities do not stop a lucrative post-mortem market in Genesis' titles: the first 350 copies of photographer Mick Rock's Syd Barrett, signed by Barrett, rocketed from £400 to over £1,000 on eBay following his death earlier this year.

From a collector's point of view, Genesis's dislike of cashing in on a dead rock star can only be a good thing, according to the rare book dealer Nigel Williams, who is less than convinced by the value of many special editions flooding bookshops. The high price of the books on publication may be their undoing, according to Williams, because the books will be kept in pristine condition, and as a result the number available will remain the same. "A lot of the time they are a somewhat artificial investment because there will always be 500 copies of the book," he explains. But the Penguin Designer Classics may have one advantage, he adds. "They are by trendy artists, and, as long as they maintain their reputations, the books will be a good thing to own in the future."

The auction for the five first copies of the Penguin Designer Classics collection will be held from tomorrow on until Wednesday. All proceeds will go to the human rights charity English PEN

For further information regarding availability and prices on these limited edition titles, please call Independent Books Direct on 08700-798 897