Recently, as reported in the art and antiques press, antiquarian books worth a combined £3m were stolen from a depot in Heathrow airport, the stock of various international book dealers destined to exhibit at a fair in America.

Devastating for the dealers concerned, for the purposes of this column the airport theft made me think – why are antiquarian books desirable? What makes them collectable

The power of the written word can surely never be understated, although whether it is mightier than the sword depends, to a certain degree, on context! Nonetheless, most of the major ideas and concepts that have shaped mankind and expressed in some form of organised language have been written down – over hundreds and thousands of years by a variety of civilisations. Anyone interested in the history (and future) of mankind will most likely have an interest in the ways in which ideas have been expressed in writing or print.


So here’s our first point – content and ideas. It sounds obvious, but most purchasers of books will want to own them for the content and ideas they express: and the examples are endless.Economists might wish to own a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, for instance, which, despite being published in 1776, is still widely regarded as one of the most influential economic works ever written and is still available to purchase, new, as a modern Penguin reprint for around £7 online.


The second aspect of what makes antiquarian books valuable and collectable is physical form – how is the work is printed and presented – and whether a specific volume is representative of how that work was first published/printed.

Whilst the written word in various forms stretches back thousands of years, commercial mass printing and production of books is generally considered to have begun in the 15th Century – with works from this period known as ‘incunables’ (etymologically stemming from ‘the birth of’).

Such mass printing allowed the rapidly increasing (primarily European) population easier access to the written word than they had enjoyed previously – and authors easier access to an audience to whom they could disseminate their thoughts.

As society evolved over the centuries, printing methods and techniques changed, reflecting both fashion and available technology, generally with the end result of increasingly cheaper printing costs allowing greater production and a lower end cost for buyers – the democratisation of education and knowledge.


From a book collector’s perspective then, the Holy Grail is to find a first edition, first printed example of a work in which they are interested: representing the first emergence of that work in society – the first representation of the author’s ideas and also how they were first presented to an audience.

In the case of The Wealth of Nations, this elevates the value from £7 to around £50,000 for a 1776 first edition! This is the collector’s bug, the passion to own something incredible and why those books, shamefully stolen, were worth £3m.

PFK’s next Books auction is to be held on August 23rd and we’re inviting entries now. Contact Michael Roberts for a free valuation and sale advice.


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