Personal Finance: Collect To Invest: Rebellious artists get all profitable

Still tinged with subversion, but no longer an underground art form, artists' books have come into their own as a collectable. John Windsor discovers that rebellion can have its profitable side.

John Windsor
Saturday 01 November 1997 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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At last year's London Artists' Book Fair, 5,000 people snapped up art- and-text publications made from street rubbish, food, clay and fabric - besides paper - and the 70 exhibitors at this year's fair, at the Barbican Centre Concourse Gallery next weekend, are poised for an even bigger crush.

Young British artists (YBAs) have adopted the medium as a way of issuing relatively cheap multiples. Booth-Clibborn Editions published Damien Hirst's first artists' book at pounds 59.95 this year, full of colourful pop-ups and ecetates but with a title, I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now that seems to pay tribute more to words than images. The print run is 14,000 world-wide and the price rises to pounds 75 on 1 January, a built-in investment.

Tracey Emin has published artists' books and three of the four young women artists nominated for this year's Turner Prize - Cornelia Parker, Angela Bullock and Christine Borland - are being published by Book Works. The last 50 copies of Parker's Lost Volume have been bought by the Tate Gallery's shop, where they are selling for pounds 12, and a CD-Rom by Borland will be published by Book Works next year.

Such mass-produced but limited-edition "commercial" ventures have become more plentiful in the past couple of years. They retail in bookshops and galleries sometimes for under pounds 20 - peanuts compared with the thousands of pounds commanded by the sumptuous hand-made livres d'artiste as originally conceived in Paris in the Twenties by art dealers Vollard and Kahnweiler. The fair, now in its fifth year, has become the occasion to launch them.

So far, commercial artists' books have not deviated from the ideal of being artist-conceived. But whether they will rise in value or simply dilute the market remains to be seen. They certainly throw into favourable contrast more established investment areas - books of prints by fine artists that work out cheaper than individual prints, books by names that have entered the artists' book mainstream, books that have crossover appeal (opera or birdwatching, for example) and the ephemeral, sometimes scurrilous artists' books of the Sixties and Seventies that were haphazardly distributed and collected by few.

If you had invested as little as 10p or pounds 1 each in all 1,000 artists' books produced since the Sixties by Ian Hamilton Finlay, now 72, which include a cut-out glider book and a book of plant labels, like butterflies, to stick on trees, your collection would be worth pounds 40,000-pounds 50,000. Mock not: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery and the V&A have all bought his work.

There are still few serious artists' book collectors in Britain: the two biggest British names in hand-crafted artists' books, Ron King and Ian Tyson, both in their 70s, go on selling tours in America and Europe.

But British art colleges are adapting their printing or graphics departments to artists' books and are fuelling demand by collecting historic works for their libraries. Chelsea College of Art's collection, dating back to the Sixties, is particularly envied.

No fewer than eight art colleges and universities will have stands at the fair. So you can talent-spot as at graduate shows. Take a look at Artbound's stand, where four young women graduates who learned book-making at college will offer their small, embossed, rubber-stamped, Xeroxed or hand-coloured books in editions of under 100 at less than pounds 50 each.

And what price in a generation's time the Sixties and early Seventies photocopied scores of performance art by 77-year-old Bob Cobbing, who will be seen lurching periodically from his stand at the fair uttering "articulated vocal sound". He used to be the projectionist for Yoko Ono's film of naked bottoms and sometimes performed his "concrete poetry" at her soirees.

Concrete poetry is no longer the new rock 'n' roll, but its eccentric illustrated texts were a precursor of artists' books. Ono and the subversive Fluxus art movement took Cobbing's work to heart. Be patient with the art historians and watch the value of his squiggles and blotches rise.

You can still buy them. His "Domestic Ambient Noise" series, in collaboration with the visual poet Lawrence Upton, has run to 157 editions in the past three years. They cost pounds 1 each or four for pounds 5. A rich collector in Miami and two assiduous London collectors have all 157. He charges pounds 5 for his computer book of vocal sound cues, published a decade ago. There are few left.

Books published by the Beau Geste Press, which was on the Fluxus network in the late Sixties and early Seventies, can still be had for pounds 10-pounds 20.

Or put your money into names that have entered the mainstream as book artists. Ron King's concertina of cut-outs, The White Alphabet of 1983, sells for pounds 750. And Dream Works, a collaboration by Mel Gooding and Bruce McLean that seemed impossible to shift at pounds 200 12 years ago, now changes hands for more than pounds 1,000.

The London Artists' Book Fair, Concourse Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2, Friday-Saturday 7-8 November (10am-7pm), Sunday 9 November (noon-7pm), entry pounds 2.50, concessions pounds 1.50. Dealers: Marcus Campbell (0171-495 6487), Eagle Gallery (0171-833 2674), Hardware (0181-341 6415).

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