Zone Classifieds Collectors' Corner Collectors Corner: Cash In With Rare Books

Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party Illustration by John Tenniel from the book 'Alices's Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll published 1891. Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Collectors' Corner

Collectors Corner: Cash In With Rare Books

BY Viia Beaumanis | April 17th, 2024

Illustrious literature or sumptuously illustrated, rare books fetch stratospheric prices at auction. Casino Royale, The Canterbury Tales, Harry Potter; collectors track down first – and only – editions with glee. A global obsession that Sotheby’s zeroed in on with their Books & Manuscripts department, which has raked in more than $390 million since its inception. While The Book of Mormon (1830) is the most costly ever sold ($43 million), we dig into the fascinating histories behind some of the most interesting and highly sought-after.

First Folio, William Shakespeare: $6.5 million

Initially titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio is a collection of 23 plays by Shakespeare, including The TempestMuch Ado About Nothing, and Romeo and Juliet, published in 1623, seven years after his death. The compendium is the reason the fabled playwright’s work is known today, without it, Shakespeare may have been forgotten. 

In 2006, First Folio sold at Sotheby’s for $6.5 million, in 2022 it went for just over twice that at Christie’s – the most expensive work of literature ever auctioned. In 2022, it was gifted to the University of British Columbia, which celebrated the stunning endowment with the exhibit, For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio, which was on display earlier this year..

In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway: $56,000

In its original 1924 run, only 300 copies of this short-story collection were printed by its Parisian publisher, Three Mountains Press. A boutique literary house founded by expat American journalist William Bird, it was home some the era’s most important modernist writers, including Ezra Pound. Due to a production error – the woodcut portrait of Hemingway by Henry Strata bled through the next page during printing – only 170 of those were released. The remaining 130 copies were given to friends and family and as review copies. Coveted by book collectors around the world, copies list at auction houses for $56,000.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling: US$90,000

In 1997, U.K. publisher Bloomsbury released the first in the Harry Potter series. Just 500 copies were printed, 300 of those going to British schools and libraries. The hardcover first edition is credited to “Joanne Rowling” (after which she took the pen name, J.K. Rowling) and a print line number that reads, “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.” The 1998 American edition updated the author credit and changed the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. First editions of the English edition fetch tens of thousands at auction, this month one sold at Bonhams for $111,000.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,  Lewis Carroll : $2.5 to $3.7 million

Among literature’s most sought-after first editions, the 2,000 copies in the original 1865 run were immediately recalled at the behest of illustrator John Tenniel who was dissatisfied with the print job but, before it was revoked, the author gave away a few copies to family and friends. Of the 23 known surviving copies, all but five are owned by public institutions. In 2016, an extremely rarecopy was up for auction at Christie’s with an estimate of $2.5 to C$3.7 million. More “affordable” second printings go for about $62,500.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming: US$130,000

Inspired by real, if absurd, events, this dashing 1953 novel was the first in the former spy’s James Bond series. Its initial run was a big success; 4,700 copies printed by the British publishers Jonathan Cape (now a Penguin imprint) quickly sold out. With its striking dust jacket, designed by artist and rare-book seller John Anthony Miller using archival ink and speciality paper, first editions of Casino Royale with their covers intact are rare and highly collectable. Garnering anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 to $122,600, depending on the condition of the book, its jacket and whether it’s signed.

Difesa, Galilei Galileo: $613,349 US

In 1607, Italian astronomer-physicist-engineer Galileo – the polymath of Pisa! – published this book as a rebuttal to his arch rival, scientist Baldassare Capra, who he’d accused of plagiarizing his work and falsely claiming invention of the ingenious compasso; “a sophisticated calculating instrument for performing a wide variety of geometrical and arithmetical operations.” 

Fellow aristocrats, the duelling duo met when Capra’s father taught fencing to a young Galileo, the compasso would not be their only conflict. They also publicly feuded over the discovery of what is now known as Kepler’s Supernova, a star that challenged the views of philosophers of the age, who adhered to the Aristotelian view that the galaxy was unchangeable

Insulted by Galileo’s failure to acknowledge him as the star’s discoverer, Capra published a pamphlet in 1604, Consideratione astronomica circa la nova et portentosa Stella che nell’anno, that criticized Galileo’s view. Noting that a similar new star, Tycho’s supernova, had appeared and was significant because the interval between the two stars’ appearance was the same as the number of years in the life of Jesus Christ. Galileo ignored this scientific judgement, jotting bue coglione (ox balls) in the margins of his copy of Capra’s booklet. There are 40 known copies of Difesa, of which 10 have been brought to sale in the last century, including one that earned $746,752 at Sotheby’s in 2020.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: $202,600

Published in 1925, and now a classic of 20th century literature, Gatsby wasn’t a huge success during his lifetime. Selling fewer than 25,000 copies by the time of his death in 1940, first editions in their original dust jacket are hard to track down. If you own a first edition, look for a typo on the back of the dust jacket: “jay Gatsby” with a lowercase “j” – an error that was corrected by hand with ink or a stamp – and you’re in luck. In 2018, one was auctioned off for $202,600.

The Birds of America, John J. Audubon: $11.5 million

Between 1827 and 1838, the naturalist published a series of exquisite illustrations of North American birds. Compiled, these 435 images form the complete first edition of The Birds of America – many of the species depicted now endangered or extinct. Valued for its breadth and artistry, only 119 copies of the original book survive. One went for $11 million in 2000, another sold for $14.3 million in 2010.

120 Days of Sodum, Marquis de Sade: $6.2million

Composed in his prison cell in the Bastille, where he was serving time for sexual offenses, de Sade’s magnum opus is perhaps the world’s most unusual manuscript. A 11 cm by 12-meter length of yellowed parchment, each side dense with ornate script so minuscule it’s practically illegible without a magnifying glass. 

Among the most valuable of literary curios, it was purchased for $12.5million in 2014 by Gérard Lhéritier, a Parisian financier and collector who offered to donate the ancient scroll to the National Library. A pledge thwarted when, the following year, Lhéritier was accused of swindling his clients out of US$1 billion and deemed the Bernie Madoff of France. His vast collection of rare books, letters, writings and documents – including the coveted 1785 tome by the world’s most notorious sexual provocateur – seized for auction. 

Blocking that move, the French government declared this “black sun of literature” a seminal influence on 20th century French writers, awarded it national treasure status, ordered it withdrawn from the sale and banned it from export. Keen to acquire it for the National Library, the country offered corporate tax breaks to companies willing to pitch in and purchased the 18th century erotic masterpiece for $6.2 million, with the assistance of a Parisian banker in 2021.

Do you have something in your own collection that you think might be worth a few bucks? Looking to buy or sell? Browse the Zone Classifieds and post your ad here.

A version of this story was originally published in April 2022.