How to collect books by Jane Austen

Book expert Rupert PowellRupert Powell, a specialist at London-based auctioneers Forum Auctions, explores the importance to collectors of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and what factors drive demand for her work. 

How important will next month’s anniversary be to collectors?

The 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death this year will be an excuse to celebrate one of English Literature’s best loved and most enduring novelists. Public awareness of her life and works will be heightened, but whether this will have any material effect on the commercial value of first and collectable editions of her novels is doubtful, given how strong the market already is for these rarities.

Why is her work so sought after, what makes it so special?

The world Jane Austen wrote about and the characters she created seem to have a lasting appeal and to the broadest of audiences – women as well as men, old and young, English-speaking and foreign, and at all levels of the social strata. I think it would be hard to define a ‘typical’ Jane Austen reader or devotee. Still regarded as one of the most important English literary figures of the 19th century, her works are studied by schoolchildren and students throughout the world.

This global fascination (there are Jane Jane AustenAusten Societies in the UK, North America, Australia and Japan, as well as countless other appreciation groups round the world) has created a strong market for her works – from the ordinary reader who just wants to buy a copy of a paperback, to the obsessive collector who desires to own all her novels in the original bindings in which they were published.

What can we say about how her novels were published?

Jane Austen published four novels during her lifetime, all anonymously. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously together in a four-volume set, with a short biographical account of the author by her brother Henry, in 1818, the year after her death.

Her first published work, Sense and Sensibility, was one of three novels Austen had written by the early 1800s – the first draft of Pride and Prejudice was rejected by the publisher Thomas Cadell and an early version of Northanger Abbey (under the title Susan) remained unpublished, despite having been purchased by another publisher, Richard Crosby and Son. It is believed that 1,000 copies of Sense and Sensibility were printed and it took some two years (till July 1813) for the work to sell out. Emma, Austen’s fourth work, had a print run of 2,000 copies.

Which novels are worth more than others, and why?

Jane Austen Pride and PrejudiceThe most sought-after title in her canon of work is Pride and Prejudice. It is a book that has sold somewhere in the region of 20 million copies worldwide since its original appearance, and has inspired numerous cinematic and dramatic adaptations as well as imitations.

A copy of the three volume first edition of 1813 in the original drab boards, complete with all half-titles and with the advertisements (dated November 1812) bound in at the beginning of volume one, made a monumental £115,000 at auction in 2010. The more “usual” price for a copy of the same work but rebound in leather from the early 19th century is around £25,000-£35,000. Sense and Sensibility, being her first published work, is probably the next most collectable title, with most copies in contemporary bindings fetching around £20,000-£30,000.

What makes the difference between an Austen worth a few hundred pounds and one worth tens of thousands and more?

It is largely the edition, condition and association which make a difference to values of Jane Austen (and other) books. In general, a first edition is more desirable to collectors than a later reprint, since it is the original format in which the book appeared.

The first or earlier works of an author’s output also tend to be more collectable than later titles because the print run was usually smaller, perhaps before an author became (more) successful or famous. Condition and completeness of books is of paramount importance. In many copies of first editions of Jane Austen’s works, the half-title (a single leaf with just the title of the book, which immediately precedes the title-page – which has author, volume number, publisher and date details) is often missing from one or all the volumes.

These half-titles would often be the page on which an ownership or other inscription was written, so, when the book was rebound, this page might well have been discarded. Although this might appear a small defect, to a serious collector or purist, a missing page such as this could make a considerable difference.

How important are bindings to the price and collectors in general?

Books in their original bindings tend to make more than those in contemporary bindings, while the latter tend to make more than those in modern bindings. In all cases, a book in pristine condition will make more than a copy, which is worn or grubby (internally or externally).

Finally, an overriding factor to all of the above could be a book’s association – a copy signed by the author or given by the author to someone (and that someone could also be of varying degrees of significance), or a copy owned by someone well-known or linked in some way to the author, could all impact enormously on the value. By Jane Austen novelsway of example, a first edition of Emma with an inscription in the publisher’s hand “From the author” and owned by her friend Anne Sharp, made a staggering £150,000 at auction in 2008. Without this association, this copy would probably have made a tenth of the price.

How has the market changed in recent years, what influences it?

The market for Jane Austen books remains extremely buoyant. While scholars might argue that it is her literary skills, humour and social perceptiveness which have created such a lasting appeal, who can argue that the image of a wetshirted Colin Firth appearing from the lake as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, has not created an equally lasting impression on countless newcomers to Jane Austen.

Last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies went one step further in endeavouring to reach a new, presumably younger, audience of fans. Most film and TV versions have had enormous box office appeal, but no version would surely work unless the original novel itself had been so brilliant and timeless.

What would be the book of hers that you would most like to own and why?

For me, any first edition by Jane Austen would be a prize to wish for. I have read and re-read all her novels, often finding something new to enjoy each time. I have a charming set of her novels published around the turn of the 20th century and illustrated by Brock already on my shelves – so would it be too greedy if I were to wish for a full set of all her first editions?

What is the collector’s Holy Grail when it comes to Jane Austen?

The Holy Grail for Jane Austen collectors would have to be the author’s own copy of Pride and Prejudice; she is believed to have received five copies on publication, writing in a letter “I have got my own darling child from London”, and then giving four of them to her brothers Charles, Edward, James and Frank. Her sister Cassandra’s copy is held by the University of Texas.

How do the prices achieved compare with other authors of her era?

The only other 19th-century authors who can compete with Jane Austen from a purely commercial point of view are Dickens and the Bronte sisters. They were writing some 25-50 years after Austen, but have likewise achieved classic status.

Dickens was phenomenally successful in his own lifetime; the Bronte sisters, like Austen, were published anonymously (or rather pseudonymously to be exact, under the pen names Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell). To give a flavour of prices – a copy of A Christmas Carol inscribed by Dickens before publication, made an eye-watering $240,000 in 2009; and a copy of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights also hit the heights when making £200,000 in 2011.

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