Research on Antiques & Collectibles

RARE BOOKS COLLECTING:  For Profit or for Fun?

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Rare book collecting, once the privilege of the squire with a baronial library and the staff to tidy it, is becoming the province of the literate Everyman. The signs are persistent.

Attendance at auctions is rising, the number of book dealers increasing. Membership in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association continues to grow. A few years ago, there was only one book collectors' fair in the United States; today there are tens of major ones and many more smaller ones. If a bellwether of the widened and deepened interest were needed, one could find it in the appearance of three Gutenberg Bibles within one single year, each for sale in the $2 million price range. Normally, said John Fleming, a noted New York dealer, a Gutenberg turns up about once in a decade. Mr. Fleming called the triple surfacing "an imponderable coincidence," but others took it as an omen - as one of the indicators pointing toward increased action at all levels of book collecting.

There is no single factor to explain this upsurge. Some say it is based on a heightened awareness of our literary and historical heritage, but dealers with longer memories say it is a natural reaction to long years of drought. After the boom years of the 1920s, capped by the spectacular 1929 sale of composer Jerome Kern's collection, which netted almost $2 million, the Depression set in with a vengeance. Prices plummeted. Noted buyers, pressed for cash, became sellers; such buyers as there were maintained a low profile; it seemed frivolous to spend substantial amounts for books when so many needed bread. In the war years that followed, serious collecting continued to be more or less in limbo. Thus a vacuum was created, a vacuum that has filled gradually over a fifty-year period, matching the increase of popular interest in all cultural areas. En route, the overall picture of a "book collector" was found to have changed.

Collectors on the scale of J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry C. Folger, Henry E. Huntington (who spent $4.5 million with the legendary Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach - the flamboyant book dealer from the early part of this century - alone) were mainly gone. "Most of the famous American bibliophiles have died," said H.P. Kraus, a leading New York dealer, "and few big ones have come to take their place." Those who have taken their place are much more modest in aim, reach and resources: young people, professionals (doctors, teachers, architects). They have some money and a desire to do something with it, something special but not spectacular. There are those who argue that this is just as well, since assembling a really complete and important collection today is not feasible. For instance all the quarto editions of Romeo and Juliet are in institutions. What's the sense in a man's starting to collect Shakespeare when he knows in advance there's a lot he can't get?

People ask whether it is possible to put together a library like the Morgan. After all, there is excess and duplication in other libraries. All it takes is money and devotion. New libraries can be built. Dealer H.P. Kraus, acting as agent for the University of Texas, claims to have offered $60 million for the complete library of Dr. Martin Bodmer of Geneva, an offer apparently insufficient to the Swiss collector, because he turned it down. His library was given instead to the city of Geneva.

Collections of considerable magnitude are still being assembled - and disposed of. Knowledgeable people speak of the William H. Scheide and Robert H. Taylor collections with hushed respect. And still warm in the memory is the dispersal in 1977 of the Jonathan Goodwin collection of mainly modern first editions. That sale netted a million dollars, and in it the first books of two poets, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, went for 16,000 and $18,000 respectively. Interestingly, Mr. Goodwin began his collection by poking around in secondhand bookstores, where he picked up a couple of Faulkner first editions, among other works, for three and four dollars apiece.

Books can fade from fashion and prices go down as easily as they go up. Virtually every dealer can cite chapter and verse on the hazards of buying for profit. The most commonly mentioned case of the ephemeral value of a given author is that of John Galsworthy. In the 1920s an early Galsworthy could go for as high as $1,500. A 1970s catalogue offered a first edition of The Forsyte Saga for thirty-five dollars. Other of his titles could be had for as little as ten dollars. The market for some of his contemporaries who also once had great vogue is likewise down: James Branch Cabell, Joseph Hergesheimer, Christopher Morley, James Barrie.

The situation is not new, of course. At the 1929 Jerome Kern sale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's first book The Battle of Marathon - privately published in an edition of fifty - was bought by Dr. Rosenbach for $17,500. Within a decade two copies of the same book could be had for $5,000 each. In the nineteenth century, the great library of Richard Heber, consisting of 150,000 items, was disposed of over three years and yet did not come near returning to him the 100,000 he had spent in assembling it.

The future value of many books is clouded; taste and demand fluctuate. Today Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway are very high. Among other contemporary writers, John Updike, Eudora Welty and Christopher Isherwood have a strong following. How will each rate in, say 30 years? In addition to having to be prescient about "in" writers who may wilt with time, the collector has to cope with late bloomers. It's commonly accepted that the collection of John Quinn - an American lawyer with avant-garde taste in art and in books - was ahead of its day. Its dispersal in 1923-24 was a disaster, in terms of profit for Quinn's heirs. It was at this sale that the indefatigable Dr. Rosenbach bought the manuscript of James Joyce's Ulysses for $1,950, an incredibly low figure in terms of Joyce's now recognized artistic importance. A measure of what the dealer had in hand can be gathered from the sale in 1972 of a published copy of the book for $8,000.

There can also be still more whimsical fluctuations: in the early 1970s a first edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter sold for a mere eighty-five dollars. Only a few years later, the book sold for $625. The truth seems to be that although good and "complete" collections do go up in value, and that books of genuine literary and historical importance almost have a floor to sustain their price, the real key to every great collection is personal involvement. Collectors must have, of course, a healthy interest in the value of their collections, but also the wisdom to see profit as a bonus, not an aim. Some great collections have often centered on individual figures: Wilmarth Lewis's collection of Walpole, Donald and Mary Hyde's Johnsonia, Edward J. Beinecke's Stevensons, Frazer dark's Hawthornes come to mind. It is hard to believe that they were interested in the cost of what they had put together.

And although it is true that Arthur Houghton received ten times as much for his Gutenberg as it had cost him, he sold it because his insurance company asked that he keep the book in a vault, and he saw no purpose in owning a book he could not keep around. It was also personal reasons rather than the condition of the market that spurred Jonathan Goodwin to sell his collection of moderns; it was a bonus that in some cases he received almost ten times more for an item than he had paid for it.

Personal involvement, even when dealing with modest, far from rare materials can yield superlative results. A case in point is that of Frances Steloff, for many years owner of the famous Gotham Book Mart, a literary stomping ground in New York. Miss Steloff is no critic and has said so; but for fifty years she had an almost gut reaction to the literature of her own time, some of it avant-garde. She seemed to possess an uncanny knack for collecting those writers who would appear of greater and greater importance as the years went on. She also took a serious view of motion pictures, theater and the other performing arts, especially dance. She acquired the items she chose for her collection more than reasonably - the books at list price or less and the magazines at subscription rates. When she sold the store to Andreas Brown in 1968, her cache ran to 200,000 items. And when Mr. Brown decided that the store was not the place to keep the material, he sold it to New Mexico State University for just a shade under half a million dollars - and this without the literary manuscripts and correspondence.

A similar example can be cited from the seventeenth century. Starting in 1640 George Thomason began to gather tracts, broadsides, pamphlets and every sort of document relating to the English Puritan Revolution and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He did this for twenty-one years, assembling material that was common, fugitive and, in the eyes of many, trifling. The gathering finally totaled 23,000 items and has subsequently become one of the richest resources for the study of the period. It is now in The British Library in London.

Today, areas of interest to collectors have broadened. The old, basically literary patterns - such as concentrating on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century first editions, on Shakespeare or on incunabula, as books printed before 1501 are called - have been expanded to include early books of geography and exploration, music (especially scores by the great composers) and the history of science. The Victorian period, including books in their original Victorian bindings, has become fashionable, and the classic private presses - Doves, Ashendene, Kelmscott - are holding their own.

People are continuing to collect modern first editions and modern private-press books, though some say that there are too many of each and that some are too expensive. Signing sessions at readings and at book stores have made author-autographed books common, so collectors now seek presentation copies, on the order of, say, the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas, in which the author wrote for a friend, "Bow wow from Dylan Thomas."

One of the more entertaining aspects of recent book collecting is that the collector can, in effect, invent his own specialty. One man collects all texts of a Greek lyric poet, in the classical Greek and in all translations. One couple concentrates on books that have been made into movies. Collecting cookbooks is becoming common, but what about the young super-specialist who goes after Swedish cookbooks, printed in France? There is no place a collector cannot start. Or, in the words of Henry James, books should be collected with "passion at the height of perception."