Antique books are back in vogue

Despite the increase in e-book sales and other online reading options, one of the internet’s fastest growing online antiques portal – has (ironically) noticed an increase in the popularity of antique and vintage books on their website. This has led them to add new categories specifically tailored to help bibliophiles, searching for the rare and unusual, find exactly what they are looking for.

Antique books can fetch vast sums when sold, obviously the rarer the book is, the more likely it is to be valuable. For instance, The Gutenberg Bible, printed in c.1455 by Johann Gutenberg (inventor of the mechanical movable type printing method) has only 31 complete copies left in existence. A single page from this book can fetch upwards of £50,000, with a complete volume worth tens of millions.

The Birds of America rare bookAnother very rare example would be The Birds of America. This book, published between 1827 and 1838 as a series, and illustrated by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, contains hand-coloured and life-size prints, made from engraved plates. The plates measure around 99cm x 66 cm, and include images of many of the birds of the US, including six now-extinct species. In 2010 a complete first edition copy of this book sold at Sotheby’s for £7,321,250!

Other notable rare antique books include: First Folio of William Shakespeare’s Complete Works (c.1623) – £4-5 million; First edition of The King James Bible – complete copy worth around £500,000; On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a first edition with the original cloth cover – worth £150,000.

Unusual first editions, or editions printed with errors, are often very collectable. First edition copies of Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte, with the author credited under her pen-name of Ellis Bell, sell for around £200,000.

Understandably, books with handwritten dedications from the author are among the most sought after by collectors, particularly if the beneficiary of the dedication is of historic note. A copy of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (dated 1818) with an inscription simply saying: ‘To Lord Byron from the Author‘, sold for £350,000.

Current (and slightly more affordable) trends in antique book buying seem to be more towards early 20th-century fiction, with authors such as Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Daphne du Maurier fetching good prices for their first editions.

The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes rare book

Early 20th century illustrated children’s books are another area which is very popular with collectors. Fairy tales and story-books illustrated by artists like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen and Mabel Lucie Attwell are amongst the most highly prized, with an illustrated first edition copy of Peter Pan signed by Arthur Rackham having been sold for £4,505 in 2016!

The high cost of rare antique books might seem prohibitive to many readers, but antique books can be picked up at Antiques Fairs and online at for very affordable prices. For example, a book of Nursery Rhymes from 1903 in red cloth with gilt titles, including 16 plates printed in black and red, along with many other illustrations by Charles Robinson, is an absolute bargain at £30.

A bundle of antique books“While first editions of any book have always been popular with the collector, and therefore valuable, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that old books are often being bought simply for their aesthetic and decorative properties,” explains Managing Director Will Thomas.

“For the interior designer, a bookcase lined with leather or cloth-bound hardback books can be used as a stylish addition to any room. The fact that those books have something interesting to read in them is seen as a bonus. This is why old books are frequently sold in bundles, regardless of their subject matter, and used in hotels, bars and other public spaces to give ambience and decoration. That’s something you’ll never be able to do with a Kindle!”

One thought on “Antique books are back in vogue

  • December 10, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    Very interesting article. I once did well with a copy of ‘Famous Clyde Yachts’ ( published in 1888 I think ) which I purchased from a recycling centre here in Devon for the sum of £4. It wasn’t in brilliant condition but it sold at Bonhams Oxford for £400. After commission etc I think I received around £340. Not bad for a £4 outlay… I keep looking for more ‘interesting’ books but so many people are doing the same thing now, especially those doing house clearances.


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