Collectible Books: Not Just for Reading

Certain types of manuscripts and texts are commanding top dollar as nostalgia and electronic books gain influence with buyers

George Washington's copy of the Constitution, with his signature. (Photo: AP) George Washington's copy of the Constitution, with his signature. (Photo: AP)

The market for collectible books and manuscripts is heating up.

Christie’s of New York recently auctioned George Washington’s annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (of 1789). The 223-year-old book, which contained Washington’s marginal notes, sold for nearly $10 million—a new global auction record for an American book or historical document.

Not every collector is interested in Americana, of course.

An attractive feature of book collecting is that such a collection can be highly personalized, according to Francis Wahlgren, Christie’s International Head of Books and Manuscripts in New York, in an interview with AdvisorOne. “(The) unique thing about book collecting is that people can collect and form their collections based around subjects that they choose,” he says.

This means the collection can focus on travel, American history, illustrated books, art, biographies or literature. It’s almost limitless, because it really depends on what you see as the subject that you pull together,” Wahlgren said.

Consequently, the dealer and auction markets for books and manuscripts are also segmented, the expert notes. Popular categories include historical texts, first-editions literature, sporting books and biographies.

Some collectors focus on books that have unique illustrations. “There are books that we call colored-plate books that have lovely hand-colored plates inside,” says Wahlgren. “They have, obviously, intrinsic value because their plates themselves sometimes can be worth thousands of dollars, or tens of thousands in the case of an Audubon Birds of America.”

Investors have recognized collectible books’ and manuscripts’ investment potential, particularly among highly prized items such as Washington’s Constitution. “In the last decade or five to 10 years, more and more we’re finding bigger books going for bigger prices,” Wahlgren observes.

“The field of collectors has somewhat narrowed, but the people that are buying have deep pockets,” he adds.” So, it’s kind of a strong marketplace now, particularly in the higher-end area where you’re dealing with the most significant or iconic—the word that’s used often a lot today—books that stand out as the landmarks. And if they’re in good condition, they’re in collectible condition, as we say sometimes, because condition is so important, then the prices soar.”

These trends, Wahlgren points out, are “really where the market strength has been very notable this past year. You just see the very best things are selling for the very biggest prices.”

Other book categories are also benefitting from collectors’ interest. Rebecca Rego Barry, editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine in Durham, N.C., notes that comic books are “absolutely huge right now.”

Children’s books are also in demand. “People think that has a lot to do with nostalgia, getting to a certain age and then thinking about the books you’ve had as a kid and then wanting them back and wanting them in the same edition that you had as a kid, which is probably a first edition or an early edition,” says Barry.

High-quality limited editions, such as artist’s books and fine press books, remain popular, Barry notes. She believes that part of the demand for these editions may be a reaction to the growing inroads electronic books are making.

“People are very interested in craftsmanship and beautiful things,” says Barry. “There are so many people out there making beautiful, beautiful books, pieces of art, whether you want to call it art or book.”

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