Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First and Foremost

QUESTION: My grandfather left me a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I’m just an average reader and not a book collector. What makes a first edition special and is it worth anything?

ANSWER: First editions of books are special because they’re the first printing. If they’re signed by the author, they’re worth even more. But not all old books are first editions and not all first editions are old books.

Books have had a tremendous influence on shaping our civilization and culture for over a thousand years. People love to hold and own an original or older copy of a classic and feel a part of its influence by preserving it. And apart from the content, many books are antique objects as beautiful as furniture or pottery or any other collectible. Such is the case with your grandfather’s book.

The quest for exploration and adventure Is what attracts collectors to old books— reading first-hand accounts of those that were there, plus the craft and art of older books is dramatically lacking from those of today. Antiquarian books, as rare books are called, remind people of how well the past has been preserved. They kept books for generations because they contained the kind of information or story that inspired their view of life. As they got older and settle into a life of reflection, the books that influenced them or their ancestors became objects they’d like to own.

Today, fewer people are collecting rare books. Instead, they’re focusing on modern ones, mainly first editions of literature—those printed after 1929. Modern book collectors believe their collections will gain in value, like any good investment, plus they enjoy having the first editions.

The exposure of collectors to the Internet and television shows like Antiques Roadshow has had an impact on the market, and that impact hasn’t always been positive. After watching the rising prices of the first edition market, people believe that antiquarian books are all about money. They’re not—antiquarian books are important objects of the past, like arrowheads, and should be collected in at effort to understand what and how people read in another time.

Important American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allen Poe have a strong collector base. Unfortunately, most of these authors have been heavily reprinted, and the beginning collector often assumes that old editions are first editions, when in almost every case they aren’t. Being old doesn’t necessarily make a book valuable.

Today’s book collectors lean heavily towards modern American first editions, such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye—books they read in high school or college, which helped shaped how they think and who they are. Fine copies of these books in their original dust jackets fetch astronomical prices in today’s market. For instance, a first edition of The Great Gatsby went for $130,000 at auction, due largely to the personal connection that people feel for these classics. Books by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Zane Grey, and Jack London are popular, also. A first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, which sold for around $1,000 in the 1990s, today commands between $10,000 and $15,000, especially after the announcement by the author of an upcoming second novel, the first in 40 years..

The same goes for beautifully illustrated books by Maxfield Parrish, Edmund Dulac, and N.C. Wyeth. 

A first edition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species has doubled to about $50,000 in recent years. John Steinbeck's novels have been going up steeply, at least for The Grapes of Wrath, which has tripled to $6,000 in the past few years.

So why do first editions sell so briskly?. That’s easy to understand, since they’re well-identified and have only a few factors that affect their value, such as dust jacket condition and signatures of the author.

A book in a nicely-preserved jacket is worth many times that of one without a jacket. For example, a first edition of Gone With the Wind with a dust jacket is worth approximately five times more than a first edition without the jacket.

But how about the availability of old and antiquarian books? Are they still accessible? The availability of old and antique books has never been greater. The Internet overflows with old books, and for modern books there are multiple copies of collectible books. Unusual old books in fine condition suddenly become collectible, despite being overlooked by past generations. And while people continue to find old books in attics and at estate sales, the best discoveries usually can be found in antiquarian bookstores.

But while accessibility to rare books is increasing, their availability is decreasing. A book’s exposure to the elements and casualty—fire, smoke and water damage, rodent and pest damage, cannibalism and discard—adversely affect its availability. For instance, the Internet has improved access to rare books, but also to cannibals—those who extract the prints, maps and signatures from books to sell separately as ephemera.
Today, it’s virtually impossible to find an existing copy of Elliott's 1884 History of the Arizona Territory because the value of the individual illustrations far exceeds the value of the complete book. As a result, very few complete copies remain.

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