Collecting rare books: 10 really useful tips

Nothing brings us pleasure quite like a good book, and there is certainly plenty of enjoyment to be had as a rare book collector: tracking down the first editions, bidding at auction, displaying, cataloguing, and, most importantly, reading a prized work are just some of the boons of being a bonafide bibliophile.

However, for those just starting out, the book-collecting world can be dizzying. Book dealers' shelves and auction catalogues teem with rare tomes, manuscripts, pamphlets and first editions, but which ones are the best buys, and which should be left in the bargain basement?

Book collecting rare manuscript library bibliophile collector
Best buy or bargain basement? We'll help you decide

Find out the basics of book collecting with our 10 top tips...

Focus your collection

There have been books published on almost every subject imaginable, so starting out with a vague plan to collect, say, science-related books is likely to set you adrift in a sea of options. Concentrate your efforts: books focusing on early innovations in physics may be a more realistic option than aiming for all science-related books.

Don't forget, if you find yourself tiring of your chosen subject, you can always just move on to the next! Sell your old collection and you'll even have the money to make some decent buys straight out.

Buy what you love

The speculative, investment-minded book buyer may buy all the best editions of a particular book that they believe will grow in value in years to come, but what if fashions change and their collection is suddenly worth less than the paper it is printed on?

There's a simple solution, and it's one repeated by almost every auction house, dealer and expert in the business - buy what you love. Only buy the items that you are madly passionate about, which really get you excited, and you cannot go wrong. Even if the value bottoms out, you'll be left with a priceless book that you can keep enjoying well into the future.

Those looking to make a profit from books should think in the long-term. Timeless authors and classic works will never fail to be in demand and the rarest copies of these will continue to command top prices, but appreciation is slow and liquidity is notoriously poor at the top-end.

Find your ideal type

First editions (often printed in very small numbers) are the holy grail for most collectors, and these editions are going to be far more valuable than a later, standard copy produced in the thousands. But what about the other valuable book types? Below are a few rarities that prove popular with the collecting community:

·         Signed, inscribed copies

·         Illuminated manuscripts

·         Illustrated books/art books/graphic novels

·         Editions from small presses

·         Advance copies/proofs/drafts

·         Miniature books

·         Marginalia

·         Fore-edge paintings

·         Special/limited editions

Condition, condition, condition

The condition of a copy should be your first priority when considering a buy. No matter how desirable the title, no one wants a scruffy, dog-eared edition that is barely readable and you'll find it difficult to sell on. Familiarise yourself with the terms used by collectors and dealers to avoid a questionable purchase:

Bowed - a cover of a book that bends inwards or outwards, generally caused by moisture in the air.

Dampstained - light staining caused by moist conditions, though these are not considered as unpalatable as waterstains.

Price clipped - where the original price tag of the book has been removed from the dust jacket. Those that retain the price are more valuable.

Trimmed - a book where the pages have been trimmed to a smaller size, often removing torn or untidy edges.  

Sunned or faded - a book that has been exposed to bright sunlight, with resulting fading of colours.

Re-jointed - where the book has been restored but the original covers are retained

Re-cased - a book that has been re-attached to its original cover.

Foxing - brown spots found on older books, caused by a chemical reaction.

Chipping - small pieces are missing from the cover boards and edges.

Care for your collection

So, you've bought a book in fine condition, but now you have to keep it that way. Thankfully, most books can simply be stored on shelves, but there are some points to consider:

·         Use a bookmark! Never place your book face down or fold a page to mark your place.

·         Keep your bookshelves out of direct sunlight to avoid fading.

·         Make sure the room in which you keep your collection isn't overly damp or hot.

·         Protect dust-jackets with an additional cover.

·         Buy a bookcase with a door to help prevent dust build up.

Think before you restore

A tatty copy of a rare book is a shame, but in some circles, it's considered even more shameful to restore it. A restoration, especially those done badly, can knock hundreds off the value of a book, and many collectors prefer to buy copies in original condition.

It all depends on what book you are dealing with, its age and how well the restoration can be achieved. Do your research and speak to fellow collectors and dealers before hiring a professional.

Keep your finger on the pulse

When collecting, it is easy to think like a bookworm, squirreling away your latest find for your enjoyment only, and why not? Nevertheless, this is a lively and vibrant collecting area, with a thriving community of dedicated collectors.

Connect with others in your field, share your experiences and gain knowledge from those around you. For many, this sense of community is one of the biggest draws of book collecting, and there's plenty of opportunity to make new friends - not to mention learning new tips that you simply can't find in a book!

Learn from the best

Many of the top bibliophiles in history are well documented and their libraries, and subsequent sales, are still talked about today. Learn from these mastercollectors, study their methods and techniques, and some of their collecting magic is sure to rub off.

What's more, many of the catalogues from the great auctions of the 19th and early 20th century can still be bought, making for fascinating research as well as a superb complement to your collection.

Below are a few of the most famous book collectors:

·         Alexandre Dumas

·         Samuel Pepys

·         Johnny Depp

·         JP Morgan

·         Joseph W Drezel

·         Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford

·         George III

·         Sir Thomas Phillips

Reference material is your new best friend

Searching for the perfect copy of a rare book is far more difficult than simply walking to your local bookshop and asking the shopkeeper to search the system. It can take a dedicated collector years to track down the right one, especially if they neglect to heed the advice of reference material.

Books about books are invaluable, often detailing publishing history, rarity, provenance and even describing important editions. Likewise, the internet provides an equally useful tool - one you'd be a fool not to use.

Buy from the best

This advice seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how many collectors in every area are tempted by a deal that sounds too good to be true, then turns out to be exactly that. Most dealers and auction houses will give you a fair price when buying or selling, but there are those looking to make a pretty penny - not all of them honestly.

The pitfalls of choosing a reputable place to buy your goods can easily be avoided by simply buying from those with a good reputation. Ask your fellow collectors, look at reviews and speak to the person you are dealing with

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