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Stacking Shelves with Showpiece: The Value of Books As Collectibles
That persistent, niggling feeling of knowing you are but one volume away from owning a complete series of books is infuriating, to say the least.
Bibliomania- ‘The gentlest of infirmities’
A passion for collecting extends to rare manuscripts, a category that has been considered valuable for decades. Initially a sign of upper-class opulence, the assembly of private libraries and book collections is today of global interest. Book collectors source rare books to curate collections representing important history, to rekindle childhood nostalgia, and out of an interest in particular subject areas.
An appreciation for printing and binding also drives collectors towards procuring physical volumes. With a departure from more traditional printing techniques, and the recent digitisation of books, certain tangible elements of a book have become more desirable, motivating significant price differences between copies of similar kinds. Rare printing errors increase a book’s value, since these are rectified in reprints. Similarly, hardcovers retain more value, since printing and binding processes used to create these are of superior quality, involving more intricate designs. However, spurred by passions that may trump expense, a book collector’s collection is usually a reflection of their most personal tastes, and may also feature publications that are not especially pricey.
According to rare book expert Oliver Bayliss, no one type of book is most desirable. Collecting interests show constant fluctuation, and are often dictated by social trends, and such personal passions. Collectors of books are not only voracious consumers of literature, but also lovers of science, history, cultural studies, art, cinema and theatre. As a result, their collections often include books spanning various categories, which see significant change, depending on the latest developments and productions in these genres. For example, while picture and travel books formed the bulk of famously popular works in the past, original, first edition Lord of the Rings novels, and copies from the James Bond series seem to garner considerable interest today.
However, Bayliss reveals that certain books seem to transcend these boundaries. For instance, works penned by giants in classical literature such as Tolstoy, Faulkner, Dickens, Fleming and Jane Austen, and even J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, remain evergreen examples of valuable collectibles. Similarly, a first edition of Darwin’s work, heralded as the ‘greatest work of scientific literature’, is regarded to possess indisputable value by collectors across the globe.
First editions of what was recently voted ‘the most influential book of all time’ by academics have been seen to sell for significant amounts; Bonhams auctioned a copy for US$500,075 in 2019. Other works scripted by Darwin are equally as valuable; a newly discovered, signed manuscript by the author is estimated to cross £500,000 at auction.
The value of a £275,000 first edition, as a collectible
After spending 20 rigorous years scripting ‘On the Origin of Species’, Charles Darwin wanted to ensure its publishing process went smoothly. Dissatisfied with prior publishers, Darwin took his manuscript to the only person he trusted enough. Geologist Charles Lyell, a younger Darwin’s mentor, arranged for him to meet with one John Murray, who had helped him publish best selling works of his own. Together, the author and publisher settled on releasing 1,250 first editions. Upon seeing his newly printed copies, the naturalist remarked ‘I am infinitely pleased and proud at the appearance of my child’.
Although these sold out almost immediately, their contents stirred up controversy. Criticism caused Darwin to publish multiple revised editions, each in increased quantities relative to the first. With time, Darwin came to be known as the ‘Father of Evolutionary Biology’, and his postulations in ‘On the Origin of Species’ were unanimously acknowledged as having established the foundation for natural sciences.
First edition copies, which had drastically reduced in number since subsequent revisions, were considered the first publication to introduce notions of modern evolutionary biology. These contained his original sketch of the tree of life, and unfiltered theories, as well as certain unique spelling errors and misprints; ‘species’ is misspelled as ‘speceies’ on page 20. As a result, they continued to amass greater value, not only in the scientific community, but also with the general public, as a proponent of modern thought and philosophy. Today, few of these first editions exist in circulation- among a handful of private collectors, and renowned educational and scientific institutions, with even fewer being on par with Showpiece’s volume.
The only copy available for mass ownership
Showpiece’s volume of Darwin’s treatise, authenticated by experts, has been deemed exceptional, and in near-perfect condition. Rupert Paul, managing director of Forum Auctions, noted the presence of features missing from others of its kind. This first edition exhibits chocolate-brown endpapers, an intact ‘half title’ page missing in other copies, a folding lithograph of Darwin’s tree of life, an original ‘Edmonds & Remnants’ binder’s ticket, and 32 pages of publisher advertisements, absent in later editions. This beautiful example also boasts original, emerald green wave-grain binding, and gilt spine-lettering. Despite the typically fragile nature of simple, mid-to-late Victorian era cloth binding, Showpiece’s volume has remained pristine.
Showpiece’s volume also possesses extraordinary provenance, being that it is one of 500 copies that once belonged to Mudie’s Lending Library. Famous for revolutionising the manner in which Victorian literature was published and consumed, the library operated for nearly 100 years, during which several first editions were circulated far and wide, among readers and collectors alike.
Pieces of Darwin’s first-edition are available from £50, with various physical benefits on offer now.
Find out more about how you can own, and gift Pieces today.