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Don Mason/Corbis
Don Mason/Corbis

Every passion has its Holy Grail, and rare-book collecting is no exception.

Ask a group of bibliophiles to identify the rarest of all rare books,  and a majority probably would cite the Gutenberg Bible of 1456, the first book ever printed. 

Assuming a collector could find a complete first-edition Bible, which had a run of several hundred copies, he could expect to pay anywhere from $25 million to $35 million, says rare-book expert Kenneth Gloss, proprietor of Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

Gloss, a well-known appraiser who has appeared on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” bases his estimate on the fact that a single volume of the two-volume Gutenberg set sold for $5.5 million about 25 years ago. Today, single pages from first-edition Bibles fetch $25,000 each.

Anyone who can afford to invest in the top end of the antiquarian market generally will do very well. Consider, for example:

  • A first edition of the collected works of Shakespeare published in 1623 sold not long ago for more than $6 million, a record price for the Bard’s works.
  • The collection of Leonardo Da Vinci manuscripts that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates paid $30 million for more than 25 years ago now may be worth as much as $100 million, Gloss estimates.

Old books from the New World
While anything printed in the United States is of comparatively recent vintage, that hasn’t prevented demand for rare American works from going through the roof, too.

The most precious of the lot is a first-edition copy of the Declaration of Independence, several hundred of which were printed in Philadelphia for distribution throughout the Colonies after the original handwritten document was signed by the Founding Fathers. Though the copies did not bear signatures, the last one to come to market sold to television mogul Norman Lear for a cool $8 million.

Other items have seen their value build slowly through the years. Edgar Allen Poe’s first published poem, “Tamerlane,” is a case in point. Originally printed in 1827, the poem’s byline read “By a Bostonian.” It didn’t fare well with the reading public in large part, Gloss says, because “actually it was pretty horrible.”

The fact that its affiliation with Poe is obscured by its vague byline has given the poem a certain cachet as a hidden treasure to be bought cheap from unwitting sellers and then sold high to knowledgeable buyers. The latest instance of this occurred about a decade ago when a sharp-eyed collector bought the volume off a dealer’s $15 table and then turned around and sold it for $198,000.

An even more enticing, albeit more illusive, possibility is represented by “A Freeman’s Oath,” to which the early Pilgrims were required to swear. The oath is known to have been printed during Colonial times, but not a single copy of the document has ever been seen. Supposing one is unearthed from a long-forgotten trunk somewhere in New England, Gloss says, it will be worth “well up in the $1 million range.”

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Look for those Web specials
Though the most expensive rare books are the ones that capture the public imagination,  book collecting is by no means an exclusive preserve of the very wealthy. In fact, while the upper end gets further and further out of  reach, a much larger segment of the market has become more affordable, thanks to the Internet.

Books that formerly were in the $50 to $2,000 price range have come down dramatically, Gloss says, because the Web makes locating them so much easier.

“What you were really paying dealers for,” he says, “was the time and expertise needed to find them.”

These days, by contrast, a site such as BookFinder.com, which compiles the catalogues of numerous sellers, gives collectors access to 60 million titles.

“So books that were truly hard to get, you now see 30 to 40 copies for sale online,” Gloss says. “What was $200 is now $20.”

Of course, being able to afford to collect books and knowing what to collect are two different things.

Gloss says many enthusiasts build collections around some passion in their lives -- art or architecture, literature or the law, even model trains. Once the field has been narrowed, budding collectors would do well to pick the brains of area book dealers.

Reputable sellers are listed by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, which also sponsors book shows around the country.

Gloss says attending a show is a wonderful way for a neophyte to quickly pick up a great deal of information. Almost without exception the sellers are happy to talk about their trade in all its generalities and specifics.

“It’s like going to an exhibition with a curator at each booth,” he says.

Philipp Harper is a freelance writer living in south Georgia.


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