The Blog


Can rare books be an investment?

[ 4 Jun 2020 ]

A few years ago, a customer of mine asked me if rare books could be an investment. Here are some extracts of the answer I wrote him at the time:

The idea of rare books seen as a financial placement tends to divide the community of professional booksellers. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) (to which we are affiliated in two ways through the Spanish and French associations) has been including these last few years the recomendation for its members not to promote the rare book as an investment or financial product. Such a prudence is understandable when you think about certain adventures like Aristophil's!
Even so, the patrimonial dimension, in all the senses of the term, of rare books seems obvious and rare books buyers, in their immense majority, still nurture the hope that their latest purchase will increase its value in the future (or, at least, that it will not see its value decrease).

Let's remind ourselves of a few preliminary ideas:

  • Generally speaking, in the past the value of rare books used to increase over time, which responds to a certain logic if you think that rarity generally also increases with time.

  • Twenty years ago the rare book market, with the internet revolution, started to go global which put within anyone's reach millions of rare books worldwide.
    Which effects have the development of internet had on the rare book market? They are obviously many, and the purpose of this quick overview is not to offer a complete survey but I'd like to underline two important effects: 1). Access to the virtual world has provided everyone with a specialised knowledge that was, until then, reserved to a sall number of scholars, professional librarians and experienced booksellers. 2). The redefinition of the concept of rarity taking into account the internet as a new essential tool for measuring the availability of a specific title in a specific moment, and its price. Before the internet, nothing could replace each individual's point of view and even the most experienced dealers could have an incomplete vision of the market.

  • As with all other markets (including financial products) the rare book market is subject to conjunctures and fashions that can be difficult to predict. It is consequently impossible to define it as a single entity moving in an orderly way.

  • Nowadays, to a certain extent, the rare book market is still in the assimilation process of the internet revolution. For example, rare books are sometimes available for sale in several copies around the world which generally influences their price downwards, but this tendency is probably temporary and after some time (maybe ten more years?) the price of these books will perhaps start to raise again because the few copies available today will not be on the market at the same time any more.

  • Despite the internet revolution, extremely rare and important books still fetch high prices at auctions and a quick glance at booksellers's catalogues and rare book fairs, shows that many high-end rare books still reach very high prices.

So, what must we think of the potential of rare books as an investment?

My answer is: yes, certain rare books can be a placement which can eventually produce a significant return after one or two decades (ten or twenty years). That being said, it is not a risk-free placement. In this perspective I would rate the risk to loose money from "moderate" to "relatively high", depending on various factors: who assists you, what subject you are willing to collect, etc.

A few words of advice:

  • Don't think only as an investor. Assign a value and be ready to pay a price for living your passion of collecting rare books. The idea should be to buy books which are worth the price you pay when you purchase them, and to maintain an ordered purchase policy aiming to lower the risk of seeing the value of your investment decrease significantly in the future. Obtaining a return on your investment should be the cherry on the cake, not the cake!

  • Be selective: try to define the perspective of your collection with a handful of words, then try to reduce these words to a combination that could make your collection unique and recognizable, but not out of reach.

  • Take the time to create and consolidate a personal relationship with a small number of experienced professional book dealers. ILAB professionals are usually extremely reliable and experienced, and if you are willing to invest your time and some money you will probably find a few good guides to assist you in your quest.

And you? What do you think?
Love (of books) in times of COVID-19
posted by  Julien at  16:17