You really can judge rare books by their dust-jackets

Literature can be financially, as well as culturally, rewarding, says Catherine Quinn
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you're wary of the stock market, but have money to invest, then rare books can make a rewarding alternative investment. The rare-book market has become increasingly accessible to novices in the past 10 years, not least due to a boom in internet trading.

If you're wary of the stock market, but have money to invest, then rare books can make a rewarding alternative investment. The rare-book market has become increasingly accessible to novices in the past 10 years, not least due to a boom in internet trading.

The market has also come to the public attention due to the recent spate of high prices accompanying contemporary bestsellers. The sums commanded by books like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are unprecedented amongst book dealers, but whether the trend will hold remains to be seen. It's easy to see why a new collector might be tempted by the huge returns to be gained from a first edition J K Rowling or Phillip Pullman book. Similarly, reports of enormous sums paid for rare books found in attics and car-boot sales would also suggest a lucrative field of investment.

Of course, there is some truth in the promise of huge cash gains from rare books. Every year literary treasures are unearthed from long-forgotten resting places, and are sold for vast sums. Between 2000 and 2002, three separate sets of papers by James Joyce were discovered, fetching many tens of thousands at private auction. And to most book collectors, the possibility of an extraordinary find is part of the allure.

In real terms, however, a well-chosen collection of rare books will constitute a steady and valuable investment, as opposed to a fast money-spinner; and these books are usually most successfully sourced from acknowledged dealers. Professional collectors point out how increasingly unusual it is to snare valuable classics at jumble sales or charity shops. A smarter way to invest is to go for a varied selection of books which interest you, and to buy them in the best possible condition.

Jason Butler is an IFA from City of London-based Bloomsbury Financial Planning. He explains: "The thing with rare books is not to put the family silver on them. The trick is to balance the pleasure of owning and buying something with the possibility it could be valuable. I would compare it to buying a car, where an owner might choose to buy a classic car rather than a modern car because it will retain its value better. Buy your books because you enjoy them and get pleasure out of them, rather than to make a lot of money. Rare books are nice things to own and represent a good asset in their own right."

While previous decades relegated book collectors to the jumble sale or specialist auctions, web-based services now complement traditional bookshops. Bookshops specialising in rare books can still be found clustered on Cecil Court off Charing Cross Road, which provide valuable advice to novice collectors. The largest web-based service is, which sources books from hundreds of dealers and operates a large shop from Greys Antiques Market in London.

Leo Harrison, the managing director, explains: "The internet has been immensely important in terms of the rare-books market. Once upon a time, book collecting was seen as the territory of those who were a bit more savvy about book buying. Some people found second-hand book shops off-putting and eccentric, but now people have access to a massive variety of stock. Our site holds three million books and some American sites hold even more than this."

One of the most appealing aspects of rare-book investment is the sheer variety. Books can be sourced for very modest sums, through to middling amounts, right up to thousands of pounds. A set of The Lord of the Rings, for example, is currently available at Biblion for $45,000 (£25,000). Alternatively, a first edition Roald Dahl can be found for about £60 and is likely to triple in value over the next five years. Aside from financial diversity, books also represent a plethora of subject areas. Popular choices are children's books or well-known authors, but collectors may also source books for typography, binding or era.

Catherine Porter specialises in children's and illustrated books at Sotheby's, and is also the author of Collecting Modern Books. She advises: "There is perhaps no better advice than to simply collect from the heart. You don't need lofty motives, you just need an author, a period, a subject or some other interest that has touched you in some way." That said, there are certain factors which Ms Porter recommends for capitalising on market value. Aside from the obvious factor of rarity.

Of paramount importance is the condition of the book. Serious collectors are looking to buy the best possible versions and damaged books can be difficult to sell on. Similarly, make sure you store your books in good conditions. Collector Robert Newbury (see case study) recommends storing books in a glass-fronted cabinet to protect from dust, and against an inside wall to avoid "foxing" or brown spots caused by damp. Books should also be stored upright and away from direct sunlight.

There are a few key points to bear in mind for investment purposes. Many new collectors are surprised to find that age can have very little effect on value. For example, a Philip Pullman first edition, published in the last decade, could be worth about £1,000, whereas a Rupert Bear album published in 1939 would sell for about £350.

Popularity plays a far more important role than age in book collecting, and content is important. Well-written books that stand the test of time make better investments than older books that never raised the public's interest. In this respect, the methods of investing in rare books can be as different as stock market and savings account investments. Cautious investors can choose classics by authors who have already stood the test of time.

Mr Harrison advises on current investment gems: "There are certain areas where you can speculate to make vast killings, but for longer-term investment there are a few things to look for. Booker Prize winners are a good investment, particularly signed copies. These tend to go up year on year, as the interest in the Booker Prize also tends to increase every year. These books are steady performers and ultimately you can aim to collect the whole set, which will be worth more than the sum of its parts. With these books it is particularly important to take their condition into account, as it will only be very fine copies that command the highest premium.

"Other steady performers for investment purposes include colour palate books - essentially things like atlases and books with hand-coloured prints. Atlases and sets of maps in particular tend to get broken up and framed, so a complete version will keep going up in value.

"Then you have the big authors, which tend to increase steadily. In the US, this would be authors like Hemingway and Steinbeck, who'll always have their loyal fans. In the UK, authors such as Graham Greene and George Orwell I think will always be popular. Generally the literary greats of the 20th century make sound investments."

If you're looking for larger returns on your outlay, with the inevitable gamble that this entails, there are several strategies which collectors deploy. Experienced dealers may choose to take a risk on a new author, who they feel may substantially increase in value. "You could take a bet on the next Harry Potter." Says Mr Harrison. "Or you could be a bit canny and link your purchases to anniversaries. Anniversaries of the birth or death of an author tend to lead to a resurgence of interest."

Similarly, if a novel is made into a successful film, prices for a first edition can soar. Keeping a close eye on likely prize-winners or snaring first edition novels by novelists tipped for the top can reap dividends.

"People are talking about a Philip Pullman film," explains Mr Harrison. "And a well-made film which captures the public interest can have a great influence on the price of a book. Some copies of The Lord of the Rings actually doubled in value after the film."

Smart investors can take advantage of sentimental purchases. Favourite childhood reads can become enormously popular purchases for adults of the corresponding generation. Some applied maths and inspired guesswork can pre-empt a surge in demand for these books, ensuring a rise in value.

However, these predictive methods of investing do constitute a risk. Many dealers bought Captain Corelli's Mandolin on the expectation of box-office success, only to find that the film version did little to enhance the value of the novel. And whether the next Harry Potter will mirror the success of its prequels remains to be seen. As with stocks and shares, there is no guaranteed method of predicting a rise in market value.

Book auctions can be a good way to tap into the current "must-haves" of the book world. Larger auction houses such as Christie's run regular events, such as their recent sale of the Arthur Conan Doyle letters. For auctions with more customer-friendly commission rates, Biblion Rare Books also run regular auctions according to theme. The next event on 2 June features a broad range of books. Lots include first editions of Agatha Christie from £2,500, Lord of Rings from £5,000, Philip Pullman from £600, Isaac Asimov from £150, and Wind in the Willows from £650, as well as some beautifully illustrated texts from £150 upwards.

* Biblion, 020 7629 1374,



Ardis Books, Hampshire

'Go for the most expensive you can afford'

Robert Newbury began collecting rare books in the 1970s. He now owns Ardis Books in Hampshire.

"I got into collecting books by accident really. I started going to second-hand bookshops in the 1970s and buying up Giles cartoon books. Then as a kind of nostalgia thing, I went on to collect children's books by Malcolm Saville. That's how I started anyway, and I think you tend to start with things you can afford.

"As I got a bit older I started collecting more mainstream authors and personal favourites. I recently had a copy of Brideshead Revisited which was published in 1945, and has become a fairly major classic of 20th century literature. At the time it was published it was just another book, now you pick up the first edition with the dust wrapper on, and you think - well there it is how it was the first day it was published. There's some mystique in that.

"The current thing - admittedly a slightly different branch of the book world - is for British comics, which until the past few years were not really thought very much of by collectors. Now comics from the 1950s and 1960s, and anything TV related is popular, probably because it reminds people of the past. Another author I've noticed has risen to great prominence is Eleanor Brent Dyer. I bought some first editions in 1983 at a jumble sale because they had nice jackets. They were worth between £7 and £10 each, which I thought was good. Today you'd pay £100 to £150 each. There is also demand for girl's comics now. They can go for £10, sometimes hundreds, which wasn't the case a little while ago. I think women didn't tend to collect those kinds of things, but that seems to have changed and now there's quite a big demand for girl's comics.

"Anyone starting a collection should look for books with dust wrappers. It can be quite confusing why people are interested in these paper jackets, but it's like collecting anything. You want the complete version, as it was published, preferably on day one.

"Go for more expensive books because they tend to maintain their value."


* Claudius Ptolemy, astronomer and geographer, invented lines of longitude and latitude and knew the earth was round. In 1990 his Cosmographia, right, was sold in New York for $1,925,000, making it the most valuable atlas in the world.

* The Gospel Book of Henry the Lion was sold in 1983 for £8.14m. Today it sits in Helmarshausen, Germany.

* The Birds of America by John James Audubon, is a collection of 435 hand-coloured engravings of every known bird in America around the 1820s. In 2000 one of the 119 remaining books fetched £4.8m at Christie's, New York, to become the world's most valuable printed book.

* The Tyndale New Testament was the first printed New Testament in English. In 1994 the British Library managed to acquire one of only two remaining complete copies for just over £1m.

* Created between 1400 and 1407, the Sherborne Missal contains the texts and music used in the Catholic Church service. Today the medieval book - worth £15m - resides at the British Library, where it has been since 1998.

* The Lindisfarne Gospels were written between 715 and 720 and are considered the greatest treasure from Northumbria still in existence. An artistic masterpiece, they can be found in the British Library.

* A Christian book of private devotions, the Sforza Hours, below, was commissioned around 1490 for Bonna of Savoy. Today the priceless Renaissance masterpiece is housed at the British Library.

* The Bible is the best-selling and most widely distributed book in the world, but most copies don't have great monetary value. But with just 48 remaining today, the Jerome Latin Vulgate version of the Gutenberg Bible - the first printed Bible - is one of the most valuable books in the world. A partial copy was sold in New York for $5.4m (£3m).



* George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945 In dust jacket, £2000.

* Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 3 volumes, 1862. Second impression, £600-800.

* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902, in original cloth, £1500.


* Ted Hughes, Crow. 1973 Limited edition £950

* Philip Larkin, High Windows, 1974. In dust jacket, £60-80.

* TS Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917, one of 500 copies, £4000-5000.


* Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, 1995. In dust jacket, £20.

* Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes, 1996. In dust jacket, 1996. £150.


* L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900 First edition, second issue, £4,950

* Roald Dahl, The Witches, £60.

* J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first edition, £16,000.

* Richard Adams, Watership Down, 1972, £500-700.

Compiled by Helen Crockett


* Advance copy: a copy of a book usually sent to reviewers prior to publication, could be in a different format and may or may not be bound.

* ANS: autograph note signed

* Boards: the covers of a hard-bound book.

* Dustwrapper/ jacket: The protective illustrated paper cover to a hard-bound book.

* End paper: Front paper binding the cover to the inner pages - often marbled or "fancy" in earlier books.

* First Edition: A copy from the first print run of a publication - almost always more sought after than later editions.

* Foxing: Brown spots caused by exposure to damp.

* Reading copy: A book that is not in good enough condition to be seriously considered as a collector's item.

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here