Personal Finance: Your first fortune

A growing number of collectors are focusing on first editions of famous writers. An

early copy with its dust-jacket may be worth a lot, as John Andrew discovers

Although in most peoples' minds the phrase "first edition" conjures up an image of a leather-bound volume of some age, modern books can be worth a small fortune and they certainly do not have to be bound in leather.

However, do not build up your hopes, as not every first printing or special edition is valuable. Nicholas Worskett of Christie's South Kensington told me recently: "Authors can go out of fashion." Only that morning he had disappointed a gentleman with a collection of superb leather-bound limited editions by Somerset Maugham, signed by the author. As no one is interested in Maugham's books at present, he could not accept them for auction as he knew they would not sell.

Somerset Maugham and limited printings to one side, first editions by famous writers of the 20th century are generally keenly sought by a growing following of collectors. Novelists normally have a broader appeal than poets. Agatha Christie, William Golding, Graham Greene, T.S Eliot, Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and P.G Wodehouse are among the writers currently at a peak of popularity. Others are joining their ranks. Victoria Lynne of Christie's was recently very surprised when 13 presentation volumes by Dennis Wheatley, which had frayed wrappers and were generally not in good condition, sold for pounds 862.

The greatest demand is for established authors, or the leading figures in a particular genre of fiction - such as crime - but interesting minor writers are not to be overlooked. The interest for collectors is that reputations change and authors currently regarded as minor may become part of the canon of popular literature. This if course is to the benefit of anyone who has been enthusiastically collecting their first editions.

Generally the first editions of earlier works are worth more than later books by the same author. The reason is simple. When a writer is an "unknown" his or her work is printed in small numbers. As an author secures a reputation, publishers are prepared to undertake larger print runs and therefore first editions of a new work are more abundant.

This can be illustrated by Graham Greene's first publicised work, Babbling April, a book of poems printed in 1925 when he was an undergraduate. A good copy would now realise pounds 3,000-pounds 5,000 at auction. However, first editions of his post-war books may be secured for under pounds 100. Martin Amis's first book of The Rachel Papers, which was published in the 1970s, would realise around pounds 200 if in top condition. However, as his subsequent books are printed in such huge numbers, a first edition has no commercial value as a collectors' piece - of course they have the nominal value as a second- hand book.

Condition is of paramount importance where modern first editions are concerned. Collectors seek examples in pristine condition and it is difficult to obtain a decent price for a volume that is in mediocre condition - unless of course, it is extremely rare. The presence of an original dust- jacket considerably enhances a book's value. For example, in May Christie's sold a first printing of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow, published in 1915. Most of the 2,500 copies were destroyed following the work being held as "not morally sound". In its original dust-jacket, it sold for pounds 5,175 - without, it would have realised pounds 300-pounds 500.

The presence of a dust-jacket caused incredible demand for one 20th century first edition at Sotheby's last month. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles published in 1902 sold to a US collector for a staggering pounds 80,700, which is a record for a modern first edition with its dust-jacket. The only other known copy with its original wrapper is in the Bodleian at Oxford. Had a copy been sold without its dust-jacket, it would have realised pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000.

As an original dust-jacket can dramatically multiply a book's value, it makes sound sense to be careful with those on the books you already have and to treat those on the first editions of minor authors which you buy new with the greatest respect. The reason that dust-jackets considerably enhance the value of older books - to the extent that they are worth more than the book itself - is that at one stage it was unfashionable to retain a book's jacket. Some are also rarer than others because of the delicate or fragile paper used. For this reason, dust-jackets to Ronald Firbank's novels and Beatrix Potter's stories are either unknown or excessively rare.

The condition of the dust-jacket is also very important. Minor tears are not welcome, but may be accepted by collectors. Even so, the slightest of imperfections can decrease values by 10 per cent or more. Badly worn jackets are completely discounted and such books are valued at the same price as a "naked" edition.

Children's books can also be worth a fortune. The highest price for a 20th century first edition in this category is pounds 63,250, achieved at Sotheby's in May 1994 for a volume of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The copy was given by the author to Zipporah Robinson, a member of the domestic staff at her grandfather's Hertfordshire home. It carries the inscription, "For Zipporah from Beatrix Potter, Christmas 1901". It is one of 250 copies Miss Potter had printed herself after the story was rejected by several publishers, including Frederick Warne who published subsequent editions of this and her other stories. In November, Sotheby's is to offer a fine first edition of Wind In The Willows in its original dust-jacket. It is estimated at pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000.

Inscriptions can greatly enhance a book's value. A first edition of Casino Royale dedicated to "M" and signed by Ian Fleming sold at auction in 1989 for pounds 5,500. The volume was contained in a morocco leather slip case, but otherwise it did not differ from any other first edition of the work. A copy of Live and Let Die inscribed to "Clemmy from Winston" has sold for nearly pounds 6,000, whereas a first edition without any inscription, but in its original dust-jacket, would sell for less than pounds 100.

With certain authors their signature on the fly-leaf can quadruple the value of a first edition. However, generalisations can be misleading. Such a premium would not be forthcoming if the author signed a high proportion of his or her work. The recent popularity of book-signings, linked to the fact that the print runs of the book are high, means that it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that current popular works signed by their authors will be of commercial value on the secondary market.

First editions can cost as much as a Rolls Royce, or as little as a train fare. Collecting them is fun because items are available to suit all pockets. So, how does one go about collecting modern first editions? First it is necessary to decide which authors to collect. There is little point in acquiring books which do not appeal to you. When you have drawn up a short list of your favourite writers, go to your local library and obtain a bibliography of each author. This will list every work he or she has published, together with the date of each edition. Alternatively obtain a copy of Conolly's Modern First Editions which is published by Little Brown at pounds 25. This gives a chronological listing of each author's novel, together with an indication of values.

Some larger libraries have volumes of the Book Auction Records which are published annually. These will not only give an indication of the prices at which particular titles sell., but also serve as a useful guide as to the frequency at which certain books appear at auction. It is well worthwhile obtaining a copy of the monthly Book and Magazine Collector and to attend auction views. It is far better to treat all collecting as a hobby. If the volumes you secure do increase in value, that is an added bonus to the pleasure you derive from searching for and owning books.

Christie's South Kensington will be including books in its James Bond sale on 17 September. A 1954 first edition of `Live and Let Die' is expected to sell for pounds 150-pounds 250 with its dust jacket

Sotheby's is holding a sale of children's books on 10 November

Christie's South Kensington will feature modern first editions in its book sale of 20 November including works by Conrad, Durrell, Golding, Lawrence and Wodehouse

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