Perspective

Rarer than ever: the undying appeal of antiquarian books


Ed Maggs conjures up a Dickensian London when he talks of his forebear Uriah, who came to London from rural Somerset and served as footman in the house of a Bloomsbury doctor.

Uriah quit service and in the 1850s set up as a stationer, selling and lending newspapers and periodicals in Paddington, before branching into what has proven to be an astonishingly enduring and prosperous trade: rare books.

“The 1880s were the period of major change and growth, as the great libraries of Europe began to disgorge their books,” says Ed. “It coincided with the golden age of American connoisseurship, as wealthy families like the Morgans were growing substantial collections. The direction of migration of rarities was clearly from Europe to the Americas.”

Legislative change and social upheaval all played their part in shaping the early life of the trade. The easing of UK entailment law in the 1880s, which had previously restricted the sale of family heirlooms, brought more items to the market. And in the early 20th century the mass dismantling of country houses flushed out further treasures.

Shifts in global politics also triggered some landmark transactions.

In 1932 Ernest Maggs, one of Uriah’s sons, successfully negotiated with the government of Stalin’s Russia on what remains one of the most controversial book sales ever. Stalin’s regime, hungry for hard currency, was selling off treasures from the country’s nationalised galleries and libraries – and Maggs became involved in a transaction involving a Gutenberg Bible and the Codex Sinaiticus. The latter is one of the earliest known bible manuscripts, dating from 350AD. Maggs’ involvement resulted in its purchase by the British Museum in 1933.

The Maggs business had its own good fortunes, too. In 1932 King Manuel II of Portugal, living in exile in Fulwell Park, Twickenham, and a passionate book collector, died aged 43 owing Maggs the sum of £35,000 (many millions in today’s money). When duly settled by the late king’s estate, the payment enabled Maggs to buy the lease on a 1740s townhouse in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, which became the base of the business until 2012.

At the end of the 20th century Maggs was involved in another notable transaction. The firm had helped build the renowned private library of Sir John Paul Getty Jnr at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire. In 1998, buying at Christie’s on Getty’s behalf, Maggs paid £4.2 million for Caxton’s Chaucer, the first book printed in England. At the time it was the highest price any book had commanded.

Maggs paid £4.2 million for Caxton's Chaucer, the first book printed in England. At the time it was the highest price any book had commanded.

Who collects rare books today – and why?

In some ways, says Ed, little has changed since the 1850s. True collectors are still those who are personally passionate about the objects, and the words inside them.

“The 1970s saw a shift where artworks and other cultural goods were suddenly commoditised and turned into investments. And that happened in the book world too, with terrible schemes involving portfolios of rare books.”

“In the end that doesn’t help the trade. Rare books become what I call “psychically tarnished” if they change hands too often. If they’re reduced to an investment token they lose their appeal.”

In fact their desirability – and paradoxically their financial value – truly soars where they have few but significant owners who add that mysterious allure: provenance. “We get books acquiring virtue by being part of a famous collection,” Ed explains. “Or we get old books acquiring virtue for never having been sold before.

“Our collectors are all nationalities, genders, backgrounds, personality types. But in common they tend to enjoy reading. Their collection is usually an extension of what they care about, whether it’s history, or a military campaign, or a period, or a scientific field. A good collection might resemble a microcosm of the era you’re interested in. We don’t see many completely abstracted collectors for whom the book is just a wealth token.”

Fewer transactions, higher values

The digital age has thrown up challenges. But it has also brought benefits, such as being able to swap information with other traders and historians, verify items and ownerships.

“There was a period about 10, 15 years ago where some in the trade lost heart. Some thought the love of real physical books would pass in an age where digital facsimiles were so obtainable. But that hasn’t happened. I look at people in their 20s and 30s and they’re buying vinyl and printing their own magazines. They have a healthy understanding of what is best served digitally and what it is to enjoy real, physical stuff. Books have a smell. They make a sound.”

The volume of rarities passing through Maggs’ hands are lower now than a generation ago. And the flow of treasures is global, no longer moving in one direction. “There’s been a steadily reducing supply as more of the finest books get placed in permanent collections,” Ed says. “My father’s memories of learning the trade would have been of continuous sales in Sotheby’s and of colleagues bringing back barrowloads of books every day, packing them off all over the world. That’s not the case today.”

With fewer items coming to market, prices have risen. Current focuses of interest include books on economics and science, for example. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations has seen “enormous inflation over the past decade”, Ed says. “The values vary greatly depending on whether it’s got an interesting history, but a couple of hundred thousand pounds would buy a nice copy of the first edition in contemporary binding.” A first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species could fetch up to the same price, Ed estimates. “The supply of these important books is diminishing. And that makes them more precious.”

Ed Maggs on the ownership of books 

“Buy what you care about. If you’re not interested in them, don’t buy books.”

“A book will never impress someone who comes round to dinner. It’s not like a painting. Many people can view a painting at the same time – it is a public act. But owning a book is one of the most private relationships there is.”

“I am often asked about the materiality of books. When is a book text, and when is it a physical object? My answer is that if you ask someone to think of their favourite book, they almost always visualise the copy that they first read.”

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