Investing in books and manuscripts


2015-06-26 11:04:58


Investing in books and manuscripts can be an enjoyable pastime and the source of a lucrative income as rare books and manuscripts can change hands for millions. For bibliophiles, building a collection can be extremely rewarding, providing a real sense of history and enriching your knowledge of the literary world.

First editions of popular authors are particularly sought after. Factors influencing price include rarity, condition, age, provenance and a signature.

Books and manuscripts can form part of an alternative investment portfolio.

Size of markets

The US is widely regarded as the largest purchaser of rare books and manuscripts. Until recently the strength of the US dollar attracted many US investors to the European markets. The majority of the known Shakespeare First Folios reside with museums and collectors in the US.

How to invest and where to buy

Book fairs are excellent places to peruse potential investments. The Antiquarian Book Fair, which takes place in London each year, is a particularly good place to start. In 2006, the highlight of the show was Christopher Columbus’ 1493 account of his first trip to the Americas.

Many companies and dealers are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA). The ABA promotes a voluntary code of practice, whereby the dealer is required to pay a complete refund should a book turn out to be fake. When investing in expensive volumes, buying from an ABA member is highly recommended.

Most specialist auction houses and booksellers have online presences, enabling investors to browse a huge catalogue of potential investments.

Rare books and manuscripts also appear on eBay and similar auction sites.

As with all alternative investments, provenance is key. A complete lineage of owners will ensure you are buying a bona fide copy and will encourage interest when you are looking to sell it on.

Main article: List of rare book dealers

Most valuable investments

First edition, first state copies of books are usually the most valuable but not every first edition will be worth investing in. The author’s fame or popularity is an important factor to a book or manuscript’s price but even so, a book must be rare to really ratchet up the price. First editions of JK Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, have achieved more than £20,000 at auction. This is because there was an initial print run of just 500.

Condition is another central factor, with dust jackets particularly important. Book dealer Adrian Harrington, told the Times: “A copy of the Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle could fetch £75,000 with a dust jacket. Without, it would sell for between £3,000 and £5,000.”

Age is also important, as is an author’s signature, which is generally regarded to double the price of a book or manuscript.

And then there is the matter of which authors are in vogue.

Most expensive sales

The world’s most expensive manuscript is the Codex Leicester, a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci. It was bought in 1994 by Bill Gates for $30.8 million.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America is currently the most expensive book ever sold. The 19th century tome achieved £7.3 million at auction in 2010. It is one of only 119 known copies in existence.

Shakespeare First Folios, that is the first publication of his complete works in 1623, can sell for around £1.5 million. There are thought to have been 750 printed although only 219 are known today.

Researching the markets

When investing in rare books, researching the markets thoroughly can give you the best chance of being successful. Private viewings prior to auctions are the perfect opportunity to view rare items and to gather knowledge and advice from auctioneers.

Museums and libraries with rare book collections can also provide ideas on areas of focus.

When researching first editions, it is important to note that publishers use different methods of identifying them. Some operate a number system; others state “First Edition” on the copyright page.

Investing in the future stars of the literary world can be hard even for professional dealers but a book’s popularity can soar if it is adapted for the big screen, so keep an eye out for tales that could lend themselves well to the cinema.

Consulting specialists is a good way of covering yourself against making an error of judgement. ABA members can offer advice. There is normally a 5% or 10% commission for this service. However, in accordance with the rules of membership, no ABA member will promote a rare book as an investment.

Main article: List of book dealers' associations

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