The World of Rare Books, or Buddy Could You Spare £ 2.8 M?

Posted: July 13, 2006 in Bookselling

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Even though I’m not really a bookseller any more, these things still catch my eye.

This copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio went up for auction today at Sotheby’s and has been sold to a London bookseller for £ 2.8 M. Estimates for the sale were in the area of up to $ 6 M, so this auction actually fell a bit short. As it was sold to a bookseller, though, that suggests it will be sold again in the not-too-distant future.

This is not a complete copy, as one of the front endpapers is reportedly missing. Also, the original Ben Jonson poem has been replaced with a 19thC copy. There are scribbles in the margins, circa the 1600s, with comments like “similie,” as though some 17thC school child was reading this for a homework assignment. Still trying to get my mind around that concept.

There are somewhere around 200 copies of this particular volume in existence, which makes it technically not even rare, but the bulk of those books are in university, museum and private collections. Original 1623 editions don’t come up on the market very often, thus the hefty price tag. The only people with access to most of the other copies are scholars, or those given special permission to handle the books.

Welcome to the world of rare books, where supply and demand rule. The price of any rare book is determined by what the market will pay. There are price guidelines, but they are only that. If you have the right product for sale in the right market there’s no telling what it will fetch.

When I was a bookseller I handled some rare books, but unfortunately nothing on the scale of a First Folio. I did once arrange for a collector to be united with some rare William Blake books with gorgeous illustrations like these:

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These were actually early 20th century copies, but of such fine quality they were valued in the thousands. They were by far the most expensive, and also possibly the most beautiful, items that passed through my hands. The books passed from an antiquarian seller through me, and I checked to assure everything was in order with no pages missing, nothing not as described, etc. Shipping those on to the collector meant wrenching them out of my hands, but wrench I did.

The oldest books I’ve handed would either be a partial set of the works of Jonathan Swift, or a first edition of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, both from the 18thC. What makes the Burney truly interesting is the fact it’s from the same circulating library Jane Austen used, and her name is listed among the subscribers in the back of one of the volumes.

In the 18th century books were so tremendously expensive your average middle class family couldn’t afford to own very many, thus the popularity of these circulating, or lending, libraries. The choice was basically either feeding and clothing your family or owning books, so most middle class families chose the former. However, for a more reasonable fee one could sign up for a circulating library and virtually rent books. Even these would have been somewhat expensive, so books were loaned around the household so everyone could read them before they were sent back. Then the next set of books would be sent, and so on.

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So, this particular set of Burney’s Camilla that I own could have passed through the Austen household. There’s no way of knowing for sure either way, as there’s nothing in them saying “Jane Austen was here,” but it’s nice knowing it’s a possibility. These books are crumbling, and the bindings need to be replaced. They’re not pretty to look at, and are held together with string. Still I wouldn’t sell them for anything, just on the off chance Jane Austen may have read them.

Another item in my collection is given its value due to a note tucked inside. The book itself isn’t particularly valuable. It’s one of what’s referred to as a uniform edition, or a set of complete works of an author published in the exact same binding, same dust jacket, etc. In this case it’s from a set of the works of Virginia Woolf. What makes the book exceptional is a note from Leonard Woolf, widower of the late Virginia, found tucked inside. The note was written by Leonard to someone who wrote asking where she could find a particular Virginia Woolf essay, and the book it’s tucked inside contains the essays she’s seeking. It’s written on the Woolf’s stationery, in Virginia’s trademark violet ink (which would quite possibly have been inside one of the late Virginia’s own fountain pens), with their address imprinted on the notepaper. Still, due to the fickle nature of book collecting, Leonard’s note isn’t worth a fraction of what it would be had Virginia penned it. Leonard’s a mere accessory, but the fact the ink was hers boosts the value.

Not even a nutshell explanation of rare book selling, but this is a taste of it. I’m sure I’ll have more blog postings on the subject sometime in the future. It’s a strange and fascinating profession, with lots of quirky variables. There aren’t too many Shakespeare First Folios out there, but there are plenty other great finds if you have the patience to look.

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