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Investing in Literary Classics

By: Mandy Hegarty

March 2014


Despite living in an increasingly digitized world, the tangible pleasure of owning a beautiful book endures. Contrary to regular book stores, the antiquarian book sector is thriving, and first editions are proving to be hot property, both culturally and financially. Most recently, “The Bay Psalm Book,” one of only 11 surviving copies, set the record for the most expensive book ever bought at auction, fetching nearly $14.2 million.


Located in London, rare book firm Peter Harrington has handled the sale of some of the most sought after tomes ever, including Shakespeare’s First Folio and a first edition of “Frankenstein”, inscribed to Lord Byron. “Collectible books tend to hold their value,” says proprietor Pom Harrington.

Pom Harrington

Proprietor of Peter Harrington


“Collectible books tend to hold their value,” says proprietor Pom Harrington. “You should hold onto a book for an absolute minimum of five years, but more commonly 10 years before selling for a profit. The ones that do spectacularly well are those that have been held for longer, 20 years and more.” Pom also notes a huge increase in the value of contemporary literature. “Established authors, such as Shakespeare, will see steady increases. But 20th century literature is growing tremendously, offering more spectacular returns.”


Condition, rarity, desirability and edition are the four basic factors that influence value. But also keep an eye out for inscriptions and associations, which can help elevate a particular copy above its peers. To help, we leafed through Peter Harrington’s stockpile and picked out the great literary – and investment – highlights.
















































F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Great Gatsby” First Edition


They say never judge a book by its cover, but in the case of this coveted collectible its what’s on the outside that counts. Designed by Francis Cugat, the famous “Celestial Eyes” dust jacket is the very thing that ramps up the price. This artwork is believed to have wormed its way into the text, with Fitzgerald writing to his publisher “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” What he meant by this is anyone’s guess, but some experts suspect the image of the illustration is reflected in the billboard of oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. About 20 years ago, this first edition would likely have sold for somewhere in the region of £15,000 ($24,550), but today it retails for an incredible £120,000 ($196,404).

Roald Dahl: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” & “James and the Giant Peach”


In a market driven by nostalgia, it’s not surprising that Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books pull in the big bucks. As various musical and movie adaptions keep Dahl in the limelight, demand has grown and the value of Dahl stock has increased an estimated tenfold in the last decade. Among Peter Harrington’s inventory is a signed first edition of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, retailing for £8,500 ($13,912), and a first edition of “James and the Giant Peach” (inscribed by illustrator Nancy Ekholm Burkert), selling for £3,750 ($6,138).

“Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies” – Second Folio Edition


With most of the surviving First Folios in blue chip institutions, this 1632 edition is the earliest copy on the collectors’ market. It’s estimated that just 1,000 copies were printed for a consortium of five publishers. In addition to a collection of plays, this book also features the first poem by John Milton to appear in print. As one of the most revered writers in history, early editions of Shakespeare’s works are perennially in demand and their value has increased around fivefold in the last 20 years. This one sells for £375,000 ($613,763).


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