Ex Libris: Investing in Rare First Edition Books

Ex Libris: Investing in Rare First Edition Books

Some rare first edition books can go for thousands of dollars. But which ones are actually worth investing in?

Ex Libris: Investing in Rare First Edition Books
Moriah Costa

Updated Oct 12, 2022

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Belle has always been my favorite Disney princess. Not because she lived in a castle or married a prince, but because she had access to one of the most beautiful libraries I had ever seen as a child—at least until I saw the Trinity College library in Dublin many years later. There’s nothing quite like seeing vast rows of parchment books covered in antiqued leather that makes this bibliophile's heart flutter.

As long as the book stays in good condition, the value of a rare book should only go up.

But aside from vast knowledge being passed down, old books can be worth a bit of money. And like many collectibles, such as investment-grade watches and luxury wines, rare books are becoming an alternative asset for investors looking to expand their portfolio beyond stocks and bonds.

Get your reading glasses and favorite blanket out as we read the latest chapter on rare book investing.

Rare books as an investment

Book collectors don’t have to spend thousands to buy a first edition or rare book. For example, a 1957 first edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, one of the first collections of Zen literature published in America, cost $80 in 2012 and is worth $850 today.

Meanwhile, a first edition of a James Bond book by Ian Fleming can go from $250 to $2,500, depending on which book in the series it is. First books in a series tend to go for higher prices as they were published in smaller quantities, such as before Bond became a popular franchise. A signed copy of Casino Royale, the first book featuring Agent 007, can go for more than $130,000 if it’s in good condition and includes the original dust jacket.

The value of rare and first edition books tends to be linear and is not connected to moves in the stock market. As long as the book stays in good condition, the value of a rare book should only go up (although there could be other factors that determine its value, which we’ll get into later).

How to identify investment-grade books

Not every old book is an investment piece. As exhilarating as it is to find a bookstore bursting with old books, chances are most of them aren’t worth that much. Just like investing in comic books, the key to finding a good investment-grade book has to do with a combination of rarity, subject matter, and condition.

Rarity 

The rarity of a book is measured by how hard it is to find. For example, a book with a small printing of 150 will be considered rarer than an edition of 5,000.

first edition copy is another example of a rare book. You can look at the title page to see if states the words first edition or check the number line. If it includes a one, it's usually a first edition. But remember that just because a book is a first edition doesn’t mean it’s valuable. While some first editions can go for millions, other factors determine whether a first edition is worth collecting.

Subject matter and author 

The subject matter and author are one of the biggest factors determining how much a book is worth. A first edition by Charles Dickens will be worth a lot more than a first edition by Gustave Aimard (a French travel writer and novelist from the same era as Dickens). Later editions, such as a second edition, can also be valuable for containing extra information or illustrations.

William Shakespeare’s Third Folio is a good example of this. Many copies were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and only a handful remain. A copy sold  for £70,000 ($78,000) in 2021 after the same edition sold for £ 13,125 ($14,625) in 2014.

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William Shakespeare’s Third Folio which can go for as high as $78,000. 

Source: wvu.edu

Prices can also vary depending on current events. Books can go up in value after an author dies, especially for signed books, while a movie release can also cause the value of a book to go up.

Condition 

The other thing to keep in mind is the book's quality. Bookworms love books just as much as their human counterparts, while dampness and mold can also cause severe damage to books. The more pristine an edition is, the more it'll be worth, especially if it includes its original dust jacket. That’s even truer for older copies because the older it is, the more likely it is to have been passed around and damaged.

And if there was an edition set, make sure you have all the books in the collection. While a first volume can still be worth something, it will be worth exponentially more if you also have the other volumes.

If you’re going to start your own book collection, make sure to take proper care of any valuable books. Moisture and direct sunlight are the biggest causes of damage, so make sure to protect your books from the elements. Keep your books free from dust by putting them in a fine dust jacket and store any first edition books in moderate temperatures, with a humidity level of less than 60%.

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Best first edition books to invest in

While not all first editions are worth investing in, some can fetch a pretty penny. Here are some of first edition famous books that could be worth your while:

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Published in 1895, The Time Machine is a science fiction novella by H.G. Wells that popularized the idea of time travel using a vehicle or specific device. The concept of a time machine was coined by Wells and is used universally.

The novel was later adapted into two feature films and comic books and has inspired many other works of fiction.  First editions can go for thousands of dollars—one sold for £15,000 ($16,672) at Christie’s in 2008.

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Chart tracking sale prices of assets similar to H.G. Wells The Time Machine from March 1935 to Dec. 2009 (not adjusted for inflation). 

Source: rallyrd.com

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Written by American comedic writer Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in the U.K. in December 1884 with the American edition published in February 1885. Today it’s considered one of the most influential books in American literature and was the first major American novel written in vernacular English.

It largely changed the course of children’s literature for its portrayal of boyhood but is not without its controversies due to its coarse racial language and use of stereotypes. A first edition sold at Christie’s for $27,500 in 2011, while a similar copy sold for $7,170 in 2004.

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Chart tracking sale prices of assets similar to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from April 2007 to May 2022 (not adjusted for inflation). 

Source: rallyrd.com

Grimm’s Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm

In 2011, a first edition copy of Children’s and Household Tales or Kinder- und Hausmärchen in German by the Grimm Brothers sold for $206,500 at Sotheby’s. Today we know the book as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The collection of fairy tales in the original German and was published in 1812 with just 86 short stories. By its seventh edition in 1857, it had 210 tales. The series has been an inspiration for writers and artists and is listed by UNESCO as a Memory of the World.

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Chart tracking sale prices of assets similar to Grimm's Fairy Tales from June 1982 to December 2015 (not adjusted for inflation). 

Source: rallyrd.com

Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist by Paul Arthur Schilpp

Originally published in 1949, Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist was a glimpse into the famous scientist’s personal life as well as an elaboration on his thoughts about science. Einstein created the theory of relativity and was also one of the founders of quantum theory, making him one of the most influential scientists of the modern era.

Inscribed copies of the first edition book can go for thousands. A first edition copy inscribed by Albert Einstein fetched £10,625 ($11,809) at Christie’s in 2021 while a similar inscribed first edition sold for $11,970 in 2022 at Sotheby’s.

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Chart tracking sale prices of assets similar to Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist from May 1997 to Nov. 2021 (not adjusted for inflation). 

Source: rallyrd.com

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Beloved by Millennials, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in the U.K. in 1997 with an initial print run of just 500 copies. The first Harry Potter novel is the story of a young wizard who discovers he has magical abilities on his eleventh birthday and receives a letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The book has won numerous awards and is the third best-selling novel of all time. Prices for a first edition can range from $40,000 to $55,000 or even more—a rare copy sold for the jaw-dropping price of $471,000 at Heritage Auctions in 2021.

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Chart tracking price performance of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Public 

Source: public.com

How to invest in rare books

If you’re serious about investing in books, you'll likely get best value from buying either rare books or first editions. But you can’t always find a first edition at your local bookstore, so don’t stock up on the latest Stephen King novel just yet. If you want to build your collection, you’ll need to find specialized booksellers or explore these other options for investment-worthy books.

Auctions

Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s carry some of the most sought-after rare and first edition books. Other small auction houses can also be a great place to find a first edition copy.

If you’re buying a book at auction, ask if you can view it ahead of time to appraise its condition and ensure the auction house’s description is accurate. You can also request a condition report if you’re unable to attend the auction in person. This report includes an expert’s view on the book's state and detailed information about its past history.

While you can also buy books on places like eBay and Amazon, you’ll need to do a bit of due diligence first, as sometimes the descriptions are not accurate or may contain misleading information. If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably is. 

Dealers 

Dealers or specialized booksellers are another way to find a first edition book. Like auction houses, you should only buy from dealers you trust. Building a network of book collectors is one way to find great deals.

As dealers get to know you, they can keep you abreast of first editions that fit your collection as they become available. You can find dealers online through places like Abebooks and Biblio or in person at specialty stores like The Strand in New York.

Online platforms 

Another way to invest in first editions is through online investing platforms like Rally and Public. With these platforms, you don’t need to spend thousands on a first edition printing of H.G. Wells or Robert Frost. Instead, you can buy fractional shares of these first editions, giving you access to collectibles without having to fork up a fortune.

And since the platforms take care of storing the asset, you don’t have worry about proper storage, either. Both platforms also have access to all sorts collectibles, from Star Wars action figures to Pokémon trading cards, making it easy to diversify your portfolio with assets that you won't find at your boring old brokerage.

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