While in New York recently, I spent a morning wandering through the Frick Collection on East 70th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues, one of my favorite museums. Once the opulent home of Henry Clay Frick, a Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist, and his wife, two of this country’s greatest collectors of art and furniture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mansion is now a center for learning about art and related subjects.
I slowly walked through each room, admiring works of art by Vermeer, El Greco, Monet, Whistler and other masters, but I was suddenly struck dumb when I entered the library. Here within the immense and richly paneled walls were thousands of elegant leather-bound books, discreetly showcased in waist-high cabinets and covered with custom-made leather-embossed tops to protect the collections from dust. The books themselves created a vista of deep burgundies, greens and blues and were as reverently displayed as any work of art.
The Fricks, like many collectors, obviously loved these old treasures. Old books, like antique pieces of furniture and art, deserve respect. After all, they are objects of beauty and knowledge that have survived decades, even centuries, and often, they appreciate in value if a collector knows what he or she is doing.
If you’re beginning a collection, the first word to the wise is to collect books in a subject area that truly interests you. Are you interested in a particular period of literature, such as early Victorian writers, or a particular subject, such as medicine, law, architecture or –– as in the case of the Fricks –– great art and artists? Maybe you favor a particular genre, such as fiction, nonfiction or biographies. Find an area that intrigues you, and stick with it over the long haul.
In the case of book collecting, age really doesn’t matter.
“An antique book is usually at least 75 to 100 years old,” says Winter Randall, manager of Deville Books and Prints. “However, just because a book is old does not mean it is valuable.” Many books had large printings, so one of the first rules of thumb in searching for books of value is determining how rare a book is. “It’s about supply and demand,” she adds. Some publishing houses deliberately printed fewer books to increase a book’s future value.
Along with supply, consider the condition of a book. Most serious collectors want a book that is as close to its original look as possible. Dust jackets significantly add to the value of a book. “An early edition of The Great Gatsby without the dust jacket is worth about $3,000,” says Joseph DeSalvo, owner of Faulkner House Books. “With the dust jacket, it’s worth around $25,000.”
DeSalvo and his counterparts also recommend that collectors look for first editions, preferably signed. Books by giants of the 20th century –– Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Hemingway –– command large sums, upward of $50,000 each for first editions of their first books. But he cautions that not all books will increase in value. He cites early books by Anne Rice as a good example: They once were selling for top dollar but now fetch less than half of their previous prices.
Also, consider the provenance of the book –– that is, the history of its ownership. If you are lucky enough to find a book that was once owned by someone famous and it is noted in the book, then the value of a book is significantly greater. DeSalvo once turned down two volumes of John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America because the owner wanted $4,000 for the set.
He later found out that the set was previously owned by President Theodore Roosevelt and the signed bookplate confirmed this, making the set much more valuable.
Finding these treasures requires patience, knowledge and dedication. Collectors are advised to find booksellers they trust and to learn as much as they can about the genres they are interested in acquiring. Scour bookstores, estate and garage sales, symphony fundraisers and flea markets. If you are dogged in your search and willing to take a chance, you could occasionally strike gold.
Most booksellers caution against buying rare or valuable books on the Internet. “Many are quite lax in the description of the condition or authenticity,” says DeSalvo. As with other purchases: caveat emptor.
If you’re beginning a collection on a tight budget, consider focusing on a contemporary author or genre. You can buy the first editions, signed, and hope that in the future the books will grow in value. But collecting rare books, like collecting other precious items, is a gamble that is made with your head and your heart. In the end, could you really part with a first-edition book signed by an author you truly admire?
The answer might be in a library like the one at the Frick Collection, where thousands of leather-bound books were once read by the Fricks and then lovingly placed on a beautiful shelf and preserved for future generations to look at, admire and learn from.
WHERE TO FIND RARE BOOKS
Arcadian Books and Art Prints
714 Orleans Ave.
Beckham’s Book Shop
228 Decatur St.
Blue Cypress Books
8126 Oak St.
Crescent City Books
204 Chartres St.
Deville Books and Prints
134 Carondelet St.
Faubourg Marigny Art and Books
(Largest gay and lesbian collection in the South)
600 Frenchmen St.
Faulkner House Books
(Largest collection of rare books in city)
624 Pirates Alley
Garden District Book Shop
(Mostly rare Louisiana and New Orleans history)
2727 Prytania St.
(Specializes in old and rare culinary books)
631 Toulouse St.
Librairie Book Shop
823 Chartres St.
Maple Street Book Shop
7523 Maple St.
McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music
4737 Tchoupitoulas St.