How to Collect Antiquarian Books


"Amor librorum nos unit" - "Love of books unites us"

Why Collect Antiquarian Books?

   The simple answer is from love. A collector of antiquarian books is neither an accumulator of objects nor simply of ideas but a purchaser of worlds through words. Bibliophile has its etymological origins in the Greek for book: 'biblio' and the root origins of the word for love 'phile'. The intellectual and imaginative transaction made when purchasing printed matter is often heightened by acquiring a volume that was printed in the author's own time. This enables the reader and collector to feel a stronger link to the context in which the book was written and how its earliest imprint was envisaged and enabled. We can imagine the author may have had a close relationship to the first edition, for example, sometimes signing their works, sometimes approving editorial decisions and proofs perhaps. All in all, it increases a sense of the personal world of authorship and how the book - whatever the subject - emerged from the depths of the writer's scholarship, vision, creativity and expertise onto the printed page itself.

How to Begin

   The practicalities of starting a collection may not spring from a conscious knowledge of beginning one! Often readers become collectors inadvertently, discovering that after a few months or years of buying volumes they consider to be precious, important or scarce within the scope of their own interests they have evolved a growing library - one which seems suddenly to have autonomy as a budding collection. If this is the case, such a person will be pretty conversant with acquiring the sorts of volumes they are drawn to from a variety of sources; book fairs, charity shops, antiquarian bookshops and occasionally library sales. They will realise that it is impossible to name a fixed price on a book, by and large, and that dealers work with knowledge of contexts when valuing a publication. They will know, too, that in order to build a good working relationship with booksellers, often there is a quiet understanding of trust and respect for knowledge where gentle bargaining may be deemed acceptable but a hard haggle is frowned upon - nobody likes to undermine a sense of the worth of a good book! When you've decided what you want to collect - and often early, unwitting collectors have already the beginnings of a theme - you can go about sourcing the right material through catalogues, by getting to know dealers and by visiting appropriate booksellers and fairs. Don't be afraid to make mistakes but do become conversant with some insider knowledge of the book trade (see the section below). Perhaps keep your themes relatively open in order to add scope and depth to your library. Above all, follow your instinct. What is priceless to you may well be worthless to another collector - you are aiming to build a world which must be more than the sum of its parts but certain of those parts can be modest; build from pamphlets and antiquarian catalogues, essay publications and ephemera in your subject area as well as aiming to acquire major historical tomes, classics and early editions. Often obscurer material that is self-published or published as a lecture or on a small limited edition print run by experts on the subjects and authors you are interested in can be invaluable as pointers towards other more important, rare material or in building a strong working knowledge not only of the subject itself but how it was and is being treated through attendant authorship, opinion and authority.

Booksellers and Bookshops

   Of course many booksellers have shops where customers can come to browse and explore intuitively the stock. However, a great many specialists sell from home via catalogues and by post because, unlike many other purchases, a described book - particularly an antiquarian one will usually fulfil the expectations of the buyer from description alone, especially if the buyer is familiar with how the volume should appear. For booksellers, every sale is unique unlike those in industries - even published authors - whose work may prove lucrative beyond the scope of their writing it. A truly successful bookseller has honed both his knowledge and, in keeping with this, his stock.

Good & Bad Taste

   The maxim 'there is no accounting for taste' stands particularly true in the case of book buying and selling and yet there are a few factors that can shape and determine such a seemingly subjective thing as taste when it comes to the history of book collecting. One of these factors is, of course, fashion and the extent to which a volume's value depreciates or grows according to latter day values. For example, in sixteenth-century London as a collector you might have laid hands on a book printed by Caxton which your colleagues may have thought a ridiculous acquisition - why not purchase Anglo-Saxon manuscript material or indeed, contemporary continental volumes? Although all of these are now considered valuable, a Caxton imprint is, for the modern collector, a scarce find indeed. Similarly in the post-war boom English literature sold by American dealers could reach exorbitant prices only to devalue to a tenth of the buying price. Of course time and tide influences the scarcity and therefore desirability of particular authors, subject areas and succinct volumes but often the collector's growing library will comprise as many books that will discretely gain in value as much as those which will slowly depreciate. Taste is a subjective and loosely contained tool that is sharpened according to the eye of the buyer, a simple 'nose' for a good purchase, the luck of the draw in terms of time and a simple attention to detail when it comes to selecting carefully.


   Similarly, scarcity is a speculative description and in some cases counter-intuitive. Everyday material, for example, such as newspapers, reports and pamphlets whilst not rare as a category, inevitably procure frequent examples that are scarce simply because of the disposable nature of these publications. Moreover, works by authors unknown or particularly obscure to their peers are of equal value simply because publishers, more often than not, will only have committed to a small print run. Adult books are less likely to disappear than children's and books which have been carefully constructed - in keeping with larger tomes - are far more likely to have survived. Thus the scarcity of books can be traced back to their genesis and genre, as well as straightforward facts such as early or first editions, signed copies or particular imprints.


   The state of a book necessarily determines its value and quality with the exception of incredibly rare and important books in which case any condition is deemed acceptable. There are a few, basic guidelines which help in determining whether a volume should be purchased or not; firstly - is the book 'perfect' ie; in tact? The word 'perfect' is used by booksellers to ascertain whether the whole of a book is being sold or if there are crucial elements missing. Seek out books in their original condition as far as possible. There are two ways of approaching this issue; either to find books in their original state - 'books in boards' - true to when they emerged from the printer's. However, there is an important period of bibliographic history when books were protected by temporary bindings. Cloth binding developments in the nineteenth century meant that collectors considered the original binding when the book was issued to be the most authentic. This position made the latter more desirable, even when a book is re-bound in contemporary calf or morroco finish, and is especially pertinent to British and American volumes from the early nineteen hundreds onwards. Secondly, try to find books which are 'clean' by which we mean exempt of foxing, flocking, staining and spotting. While this is possible with some volumes, others will only have been published on cheap paper which makes foxing (when the dye reacts over time to create unsightly brown marks), inevitable. Another issue is 'restoration' - where a book has had leaves 'resized' after washing due to deterioration, or where the restorative treatment has been badly carried out and carries the marks of its presence all too clearly. Lastly, a fairly common practice has been to slip in leaves or pages from similar volumes to replace or repair missing or damaged ones from the volume to hand. You can tell where this has occurred if the page is mis-sized, appears at odds with the rest or even demonstrates stains, flocking and perhaps different print!


   Sometimes, and more commonly than with facsimile leaves,  a book will have a 'pastiche' or replaced, imitation binding. Much has been studied on the development of these imitations and we know that it is impossible to replicate a genuine old leather binding. It's worth bearing in mind, too, that the majority of pre-1950s bindings that appear to emulate older styles of bound books will be down to a craftsman unwittingly adopting a traditional style or taking inspiration from a previous period of binding. New ones look new - and even if the boards are in mint condition, the paper labels stuck to the spines are again, nearly impossible to replicate. Most boards will inevitably have decayed somewhat so be wary of boards in perfect condition. Here a tip: if the endpapers are inconsistent with the rest of the volume then suspect the worst! A word on binders tickets; these are French - for example Derome - can be easily removed and replaced but this is a relatively uncommon deception.

Fine Binding

   Binding comprises the outer coverings, sewing and boards of a book which were developed over the centuries to 'clasp' or keep together the delicate and individual leaves of paper that were the contents of the book. This evolution long contained the notion of preservation. A book was a precious thing and as such, had to be carefully looked after. Meanwhile, alongside, an aesthetic within the fine craft of bookbinding evolved; the front cover inevitably being a tempting surface to decorate. Naturally, taste and commissioning followed and wealthy collectors were able to request expensive materials - mother of pearl, sculptured silver and gold, ivory and jewels. Bound in calfskin or morroco leather, commisioners would often ask that their familial arms be tooled on the front cover. Two distinct kinds of binding sprang up alongside one another - 'fine bindings' and 'trade bindings' and yet the boundary between the two has remained indistinct in certain areas pertaining to biblical material, for example. Exquisitely fine bindings have always been astronomically priced (with that end in mind, perhaps) but really good examples of fine binding can be found in more obscure areas such as eighteenth century French literature and the English Resoration period. In the 1500s, wooden boards were sheathed in white blindstamped pigskin or brown calfskin leather and embossed with single tools or rolls - rolling tools for a continuing design. Rolls could include religious motifs, patron portraiture and evidenced particular binders' shops at work. Of most interest to collectors of fine bindings are the gold-tooled bindings produced in France and Italy from the early part of the 1500s, followed by England later in the century. Collectors can be said to divide at this point; the vast majority privileging content over form with a very few who are inspired particularly by the binding. The gap produced, therefore is entirely demonstrative of the wealth of secondary material which is attractive and inevitably underpriced. Much Victorian material is affordable and highly decorative with the attractive leatherbound edition existing alongside its hardboard counterpart. Exquisite gold tooled books from the 1830s onwards when the Victorian taste for handsome and often brightly coloured morocco bindings can easily be purchased by the modern buyer but the key thing - as with artefacts of antique furniture, for example - is to be fairly ruthless about the condition of your find. This ensures you have invested in an object not only of lasting value through its sturdier material condition but on one which remains closest to the original publication as the creators and manufacturers of the book intended.