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Rare books – good investments, if you read between the lines

By Christopher Proudlove ©

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Narnia (1)


I’m a Lord of the Rings fan myself, so entreaties to join the family at the cinema to watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe over the holiday break fell on deaf ears. It sounds like it was my loss: the film received rave reviews from young apprentices and Business Manager (Mrs P) alike. But on balance, I’m sticking to my guns. JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth will always be my choice when it comes to flights of fantasy.

The idea of paying £10,000 for a First Edition set of C. S. Lewis’s famous Narnia books is, as far as I’m concerned, another fantasy but that’s the going price, according to Books Illustrated, UK specialist dealer in original book art and fine First Edition books.

The set comprises all seven of Lewis’s books including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Magician’s Nephew; The Horse and His Boy; The Silver Chair; and The Last Battle. They date from 1950-56 and were published by Geoffrey Bles and The Bodley Head. Each has been finally rebound in red morocco leather with gilt tooling and the set is presented in a matching slipcase.

Mike Emeny, who runs Salisbury-based Books Illustrated, says interest in book illustrations and early First Editions is growing every week, following a revival in children’s books and the number of popular movies they have spawned.

A case in point is an original ink and watercolour illustration of the Hogwart’s Express painted by Cliff Wright. A rare opportunity to acquire an original piece of Harry Potter art work, the illustration is priced at £8,000.

Interestingly, First Editions of older classics appear less expensive on the Books Illustrated price list. A Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1912 by Hodder & Stoughton is priced at £1,800 and a Winnie the Pooh, from 1926, the AA Milne story illustrated by EH Shepard and published by Methuen, costs either £1,500 or £1,200, depending on condition. A Kate Greenaway First Edition from a limited edition of 500 published in 1905 seems like a snip at £1,250, particularly since it contains an original pencil drawing by the author.

Are these and other First Editions good investments? The answer is probably yes, though buyers should consider them as long term and be wary of being tempted by the vagaries of fashion to spend more. When CD copies of the latest blockbuster movie are being remaindered in the supermarket, the value of an expensive First Edition might – at least initially – be somewhat less than what it cost the collector.

That said, the market in modern First Editions remains buoyant and it is not necessary to spend a fortune in order to join in. And if you fancy a flutter on backing an outsider, then investing in the first appearance in print of an unknown author can produce some satisfyingly worthwhile results.

JK Rowling is a case in point. In 1997, the as then completely unknown author was struggling to find a publisher for her story of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the event, Bloomsbury Publishing, uncertain as to whether or not they would sell, printed just 300 copies on her behalf. This now scarce First Edition fetches more than £10,000. A First Edition signed by the author can be worth three times that. Amazon is currently selling the paperback for £4.79!

Popularity as a result of books being turned into a TV series or film can also have a dramatic affect. Prices for First Editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1954-55 have soared recently to £25,000 or more and spiral shows no sign of slowing.

Typically, it is an author’s earliest works that tend to be the most valuable when he or she was less well-known. James Bond novels illustrate the phenomena. A First Edition of Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first foray into the world of Smersh and Spectre, written in 1953, is now worth £15,000-20,000. First Editions of his later books, published in the 1960s, are still relatively common and sell for £50 or less.

If you were the recipient of a book token this Christmas and it remains unspent, then consider the following way of perhaps making it a gift worth considerably more than its face value: use it to buy a copy of an author’s first appearance in print.

Rarely does a reprint of the same work rise in value, but if the author goes on to great things, then that First Edition might well produce a windfall profit. Bear in mind, however, that by definition, a First Edition has to be the first printing of a book that is offered for sale.

A subsequent printing, even though original plates and artwork are used, cannot be considered a First. So, what to buy? As in all cases, collector for fun and not for profit. Chose only titles that interest you, not because other factors might make your purchase a good investment. If your buys bomb, then at least you will be left with books that you love and that will continue to entertain you.

However, these prices rely on the books being in a condition as near as possible to the day they were first printed. Any damage, however slight, can decimate the values and dust wrapper, if issued, must still be present and also remain in mint condition. A First Edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles normally sells for around £1,800-2,000. A copy sold at auction for £72,000 purely because it had its original dust wrapper.

So how do you spot a First Edition? Spotting a collector of such things is easy: watch the customers in an antique bookshop. They are the ones who pull down a book from a shelf and turn first to the copyright page — usually the one facing the title or dedication page — because that’s where all the necessary clues are situated. Sometimes the clues obvious, but not always.

In the straightforward cases, the page says First Edition, or First Printing, or First Impression and this is usually reliable. Some even give a date of the first printing. The exception are those copies printed by book clubs which are worthless budget reprints even though they may say First Printed.

In contrast, some publishers make no distinction at all, leaving the collector to find out for himself. However, this is relatively simple since there are many ways to check an author’s bibliography, either at your local library or on the Internet.

The most common, and potentially most confusing, system is found in modern books where publishers use a number code for identifying the edition number.

If the copyright page lists a string of numbers string of numbers, for example 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9, you have a First Edition, since 1 represents the First. A second edition would start 23456789 and a third would start at 3 and so on. Some publishers show the numbers in reverse, others as 135798642 or use letters such as abcdefghi.

Random House is a rare exception. If the book is a First Edition they state the fact, but for some reason start the number string at 23456789. Other publishers use the code to indicate a First by their own publishing company, and not a true First. As before, if in doubt, check the author’s bibliography or with the dealer.

Not surprisingly, there are countless books available which help identify First Editions and list current market values but remember the price guides are almost always behind the times and this can work both ways: prices can have rocketed in the time it takes to publish the guide or they can have fallen away.

The best knowledge is that gained by experience. Spend time scanning Internet book sales and make a friend of your local antique bookshop proprietor — like the books he sells, he’ll be a friend for life.

Pictures show, top and below: illustrations by Pauline Baynes, from C.S.Lewis’s First Edition set of the Narnia Books

Below, centre: Cliff Wright’s original ink and watercolour illustration of Hogwart’s Express, which is priced at £8,000. Wright was also commissioned to draw the covers of The Chambers of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban, for which he was paid the princely sums of £550 and £1,000 respectively

NarniaHogwarts ExpressNarnia (2)

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