Rare Books Are a Hot Collectible. Here’s How to Get Started.

Rare Books Are a Hot Collectible. Here’s How to Get Started.
Rare Books Are a Hot Collectible. Here’s How to Get Started.

Summary

You probably won’t get rich quick. But if you love books—or the thrill of finding a bargain—collecting rare tomes could be both fun and lucrative.

Christie’s auction house in September sold a pair of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle books that had been owned by the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts for $63,968 and $226,555, respectively. A few months before that, the earliest and most-complete Hebrew Bible fetched a record-breaking $38.1 million at Sotheby’s, becoming the most valuable manuscript ever sold.

The market for rare and antiquarian books is having a moment, having wrapped up another year of record sales and attractive returns. In 2022, book and paper auction sales totaled $1.06 billion, according to Rare Book Hub, down about $100 million from 2021 when a few high-priced items skewed figures upward, but up sharply from sales of $725 million in 2020.

In the world of alternative investments, rare books can be a fascinating and lucrative journey that even novice investors can get into—from the thrill of uncovering hidden gems at yard sales or winning high-end auctions to the process of assessing a book’s collectible value. Beyond financial considerations, many collectors are drawn to this market because of their genuine love for books.

Here are some questions to ask about the pursuit and long-term value of rare books.

Why should I consider rare books?

Collectors approach rare books with many considerations—some have a scholarly interest, some are drawn to particular authors or a noteworthy history of ownership, and some view them purely as investments.

“Those collected with passion and genuine interest tend to be good investments in the long run, compared to other hobbies," says Christina Geiger, head of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s Americas. “You won’t make any money out of water skiing."

For some collectors, it is the thrill of the hunt and the prospect of a serendipitous discovery. Former investment banker Sam Dogen experienced that when, in 1991, the science-fiction enthusiast stumbled upon an Isaac Asimov book titled “Foundation and Earth."

It was a first edition, first print, signed copy that he bought for $40 at a used-book store. Today, “it’s worth over $1,000 because Asimov passed away in 1992 and his lore grew," says Dogen, who worked at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse during his 13 years in investment banking before starting the personal-finance website Financial Samurai.

A rare book can also serve as a hedge against economic uncertainty. Dogen says rare books tend to offer stable values, providing diversification from volatile stocks and cryptocurrency.

Recently, the advent of digital books has opened a new chapter in the market for paper varieties. “Digital books made print books less common as a format, and magnified the difficulty in finding a valuable book," says Wendy Guerin, Arizona-based co-founder of Cookbook Village, an online store that specializes in collectible and vintage cookbooks.

How do I get started?

The first challenge in any collectibles investment is where to begin and what to look for. Experts stress starting small and treating it as a pursuit of happiness, not a lottery ticket.

“A lot of American book collectors start buying when they visit England, because there is this great tradition of rare-book shops there," Geiger says. “You can simply walk in off the street and browse."

New entrants, she adds, should consider making the rounds at antiquarian book fairs, reputable dealers and auction houses to inspect the books and talk to experts.

One way to enhance the experience is to narrow your focus to a niche based on individual interests, whether it is vintage books from a period in history, autographed cookbooks, or first editions of popular contemporary fiction.

“Having a specific focus helps the collector learn about the value of books within their chosen domain," says Guerin, who collects vintage cookbooks—many of which were acquired for less than 10 cents each but have since grown in value to more than $100 apiece.

What are some drawbacks of buying rare books?

As with any investment, it pays to do due diligence and have a fundamental understanding of what makes a book valuable. New collectors often mistakenly equate the age of a book with its value. In reality, a collectible book doesn’t have to be expensive, nor display a worn elegance.

Instead, a collectible book typically has a rare quality—say, an autograph or a renowned owner or a flaw due to a printing quirk.

A good specimen tends to appreciate over time thanks to a naturally dwindling supply. “Books get tossed or damaged all the time, which makes the remaining books more rare and valuable," Dogen says.

Buying collectible books isn’t for those looking to get rich quickly. “If you go into this with the mentality that you are ‘investing,’ it’s probably not going to work," Geiger says.

Another drawback worth mentioning: Rare books aren’t for reading. “Every page turn and crease will decrease the value of the book," says Dogen.

What determines a book’s value?

Geiger of Christie’s lists three factors that determine a book’s collectible value: the earliest example of the book available, a close connection to the author and the book’s condition.

A piece must be in a good condition to be considered valuable to serious collectors. Damaged covers, missing dust jackets, torn or dog-eared pages, mildewed edges and stains can all diminish the value.

Ian Ehling, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams in New York, applies additional parameters. They include:

• The title—is this among the author’s best works?

• Rarity—is this the first edition and how many copies were printed?

• Provenance—is it inscribed? Did it belong to someone famous?

“Provenance is a crucial factor in today’s market," Ehling says, pointing to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s copy of the Harvard Law Review that sold for $100,000. Another copy without Ginsburg’s provenance would sell for a fraction of that record price.

Where can I buy rare books?

Book enthusiasts often trawl through auction houses like Bonhams and Christie’s, online auction platforms such as AbeBooks and Biblio, along with popular online retailers like eBay and Amazon.com.

Some have found treasures on the cheap while combing through estate sales, community garage sales, thrift stores and antiques dealers.

The safest bet is to shop in person at a dealer who guarantees authenticity. However, research remains an integral part of the acquisition process. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America have articles on book collecting and occasionally hold talks and seminars. Dedicated search engines Bookfinder.com and BookScouter can offer rough estimates of a book’s worth.

Vikram Barhat is a financial writer in Canada. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com or follow him on X @VikramBarhat.

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