How to become a rare book collector

From a painstakingly curated bookshelf to large-scale library rooms, the challenges and delights of rare book collecting have long tempted devotees of the printed page

Words by Rob Sandall

rare book collector manuscript

This summer, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre will exhibit its own copy of the Bard’s First Folio at Firsts London, the capital’s largest rare book fair, held annually in Battersea. 

While Shakespeare’s first printed work is a particularly famous example of the ever-growing collectability of books – copies sold this century have fetched close to £4m ($5m) at auction – it is by no means the only one to command eyebrow-raising prices. 

From Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (valued at upwards of £100,000–200,000/$125,000–250,000) to Shelley’s Frankenstein (£25,000/$31,500 in three volumes), interest in the buying and selling of rare books has rocketed, and the private library is once more de rigueur in the home of the modern savant.

Rare book - Third Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays
Rare book - Third Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays
Third Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays (£500,000)

Pom Harrington, owner of one of the world’s premier rare book dealers Peter Harrington, believes that there are several factors that have led to the collecting boom. ‘A lot of people wonder whether the rise of ebooks and other digital formats has had a negative effect on the industry, but from my perspective it’s been nothing but the opposite: an unexpected reason for increased interest.’ 

Indeed, it’s the tangible nature of physical books that has drawn in new collectors, because they consider the making of the object almost as important as what’s inside. ‘It’s no different from ultra-high-net-worth individuals who aspire to a home filled with exquisite French renaissance furniture or finely crafted jewellery,’ says Harrington, who goes on to note that the other obvious appeal stems from a deeper connection to the subject matter. ‘We’ll see people begin by seeking out books they loved as children – for example, Matilda, The Cat in the Hat, or The Hobbit. Or perhaps it’ll be books they studied to get them where they are today, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, or accounts of a country’s history, landmark works in a specific language, and so on.’

As with any field of collecting, there are those who have simply decided that regardless of era, genre or author, what they really want to own is an impressive collection. ‘We do have customers who know they want a library but are less worried about what’s in it,’ says Harrington. ‘They want the room to function as a talking point, a home for landmark works of literature, economics, politics, travel. It’s the biggest undertaking of all in a sense, because there’s no limit to where you can take it. We’ve put together collections for customers with Sun Tzu on the same shelf as Milton and Maynard Keynes.’

Read on to find out why people become rare book collectors and how to find the best investments.

Rare book - The Great Gatsby, first edition, first printing, inscribed to 'the original Gatsby'
The Great Gatsby, first edition, first printing, inscribed to 'the original Gatsby' (£275,000)

The thrill of the chase

Even for those collectors who have set themselves a relatively narrow area – perhaps the works of one author or illustrator, or books directly relating to a specific war – it’s still an undertaking that will often need as much time as it will funding. A focus on Jane Austen first editions may well be achievable, but it will be likely to take some time. ‘That’s especially the case,’ says Harrington, ‘if they’re looking for copies in good condition and in contemporary binding. Northanger Abbey will be reasonably easy to find and might cost around £12,000 [$15,000], but Pride and Prejudice won’t come up anywhere near as often and is closer to £100,000.’ 

It’s safe to say that book-collecting endeavours can be something of a long game, then, but that in itself is something that a huge number of rare book aficionados enjoy, hunting out those elusive editions through private enquiries, auction houses and dealers like Peter Harrington. In some cases, the owner notes, that chase is the core reason for collecting. ‘We sold a Churchill collection for £500,000 that was arguably the best in the world: everything in first, most of them signed, and a vast majority signed to notable figures, including Neville Chamberlain, Lloyd George and Guy Burgess,’ Harrington says. ‘It took 20 years, a remarkable achievement, and once it was finally finished, the client in question sold them en bloc through our shop to a customer. The buyer was absolutely delighted to take receipt of such a particularly special collection, and in that instance it was less about the process and more about owning something so unique in scope and scale.’

Rare book - Egypt and Nubia, first-edition deluxe coloured format
Rare book - Egypt and Nubia, first-edition deluxe coloured format
Egypt and Nubia, first-edition deluxe coloured format (£175,000)

Staying authentic

Of course, a collector of rare books can certainly go it alone, but it will take time – not only due to keeping track of many worldwide auctions and dealers’ stock, but also to researching the individual books enough to understand which copies stand out as a good purchase. There’s undoubtedly a tremendous sense of accomplishment in putting together a collection by yourself. ‘However,’ Harrington says, ‘people quickly discover that they’re unsure whether or not a copy at auction is a good one compared to whatever else is out there. That sort of knowledge only comes with seeing multiple copies at auction over the years.’ 

Guaranteeing authenticity is another significant problem for those choosing to go it alone. ‘In the UK, if you’re not going through a member of the Antiquarian Book Association (ABA), you’re vulnerable to forgeries, stolen items, and books that might not turn out to be exactly as they were described or as rare as described,’ Harrington points out. ‘ABA members guarantee the items they sell, and they put vast amounts of work into confirming the alleged provenance of an item before they’ll be happy cataloguing and selling a book.’ This work might include, for example, confirming any added signature is genuine, checking provenance, and establishing how many copies of a book exist and how many are institutionally held – and therefore unavailable – to ascertain its rarity.

Sometimes even sterling efforts by specialists won’t yield the necessary evidence to guarantee an item’s authenticity. ‘We appraised a violin that the seller was hoping was owned by Byron, for example,’ says Harrington. ‘A poem had been scratched on to the back with a sharp object, and there were various reasons to believe that it could have been his work. Certainly it’s a great story, but it was incredibly difficult to compare handwriting on wood to pen and ink. Ultimately, our specialist harboured a hope that it was real but couldn’t prove it beyond reasonable doubt at the time.’ Whatever the format, the pursuit of rare, scarce and valuable artefacts is always fraught with difficulty. The antiquarian book trade is no different – it has a long and honourable history, albeit one marked by famous frauds. And whether we’re talking about books, wine or watches, authentication of provenance is all. 

Rare books - A print from Egypt and Nubia by David Roberts
A print from Egypt and Nubia by David Roberts
A mounted photograph from Bradford's last trip to Labrador and Greenland
A mounted photograph from Bradford's last trip to Labrador and Greenland (in The Actic Regions)

Making the right decisions

A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to collecting books

The most investable books

Shakespeare’s enduring legacy very much extends to the rare book market. While first editions are few and far between, Second and Third Folios currently sell for around £275,000 and £500,000 respectively, the Third a rarer proposition. 

The first edition of Alice In Wonderland was withdrawn by Lewis Carroll himself, and only 22 copies are known to exist. Recent valuations suggest £2m ($2.5m) for a copy.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is often requested but seldom encountered within the collecting world, and while the first few editions look similar, for the discerning collector only a first will do. For a first in good condition, expect to pay as much as £275,000 at time of writing.

Identifying future investments

The big question is, how can a would-be collector spot the next big thing before prices soar? Start by reading reviews. Keep an eye on titles reviewed well or endorsed by newspapers, chat shows and national book clubs: the bigger the acclaim, the more likely a first edition will be to sell. 

A film or TV adaptation can also dramatically alter the value of a book – for example, James Bond book Casino Royale currently sits at £50,000 (£120,000+ signed). 

On the subject of autographs, once you’ve decided on your first edition by a living author, try to get a signed copy. This will always add to its value, especially if the writer becomes a recluse later. Importantly, keep your acquisitions out of the sunlight and damp environments. Both will vastly decrease their worth. 

Rare book - The corrected typescript of Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun
Rare book - The corrected typescript of Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun
The corrected typescript of Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun

Fakes and forgeries

In 2012, Marino Massimo de Caro, the director of Biblioteca dei Girolamini in Naples, was arrested for the removal, replacement by forgery and covertly executed sale of ‘thousands of antique books’. 

Last year, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh uncovered thefts of rare books and book pages from its collections, to a total value of around $8m, taking place over a period of more than 20 years. 

Harry Potter creator JK Rowling has been forced to add hologram stickers to her more recently signed books to help stem the tide of forgeries appearing on eBay.