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Rare chance to book profits for well-read investors

rare book Shakespeare first folio Reuters
A very rare first edition of 'Comedies, Histories and Tragedies' by William Shakespeare, with only six in private hands, sold for $8.2m the last time one came on the market
  • Books ‘good long-term investments’
  • Rarity, not age, is key to value
  • ‘Exuberance and excitement’ around sales

From his shop in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, Alex Warren has been asked to source books by a particular Kazakh author, rare Indian poetry and even a copy of Catcher in the Rye in every language ever published.

“That was quite odd,” says Warren, who opened Zerzura Rare Books in October 2022. “I didn’t hear from that guy again.”

While such obscure requests could be for gifts or even vanity purchases, rare and antiquarian books are also proving to be a lucrative addition to portfolios as a hedge against the turbulence of the traditional global investment landscape.

In September, a pair of books by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle were sold by the auction house Christie’s for $63,968 and $226,555, respectively. The books had belonged to the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

“When you look at the returns over the long term, they do go up quite a lot, but it’s all about buying at the right price, getting something that is in really good condition and ultimately something that you’re going to be able to sell at the end of it,” Warren says.

His shop is mainly home to modern fiction, where a Lord of the Rings first edition set can cost more than $3,000. A signed copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets can set you back as much as $12,000.

rare book Harry Potter first editionZerzura Books
A signed first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, published 1998, currently the most valuable book on sale at Zerzura Rare Books in Dubai

“I’d say you’d put it in the same category as wine, or certain types of art, or memorabilia,” Warren says. “These are things that there are a limited number of… they’re not making them any more. There’s a certain number of first edition books that were printed of that novel or book, so you’re buying something that’s finite.”

Buy well

“They don’t double in value overnight, in the same way that you buy a case of wine and it’s not going to double in value in a week like a mean stock or something like that,” Warren explains. “But, over time, if you buy well, especially if you buy really good quality, then the returns are there.”

Global book and paper auction sales reached $1.06 billion in 2022, according to Rare Book Hub. This was down roughly $100 million from the previous year, but a marked increase from the $725 million recorded in 2020.

Gretchen Hause, vice-president and senior specialist at Hindman Auctions in Chicago, says the books and manuscripts market in the US for 2023 was just under $165 million at the major auction houses.

“The market saw a bit of an uplift in 2020 around the time of the pandemic and, in my experience, it’s stayed very elevated and strong since then,” she says, adding that there is continuing “exuberance and excitement” around sales of rare books.

Hause says there has been particular strength in the literature market, while the science and technology sector has also been “very strong”.

Films add value

Surprisingly, age does not always reflect how valuable a book can be to collectors, Warren said.

“I’ve got a Shakespeare set here from 1858 and it looks really nice, but it’s worth less than a first edition of American Psycho, which came out in 1988, because there weren’t many of those and it became a cult thing. It’s just supply and demand,” he says.

Warren says that books associated with film franchises also tend to appreciate more favourably, citing author Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels as a good example.

“Whenever a new film comes out, that can boost the value of a book,” he adds.

Keren Bobker is a Dubai-based independent financial adviser and senior partner at Holborn Assets.

She cautions potential investors that collecting rare books may be best left as a hobby: “Looking around antique shops and book fairs can be fun and you might get lucky but it is best that most of us invest in books as a side issue to our main portfolios.”

Forbes’ top 10 most expensive books and when they were sold

  1. Codex Leicester ($49.4 million, 1994)
  2. The Gospels of Henry the Lion, Order of St Benedict ($28 million, 1983)
  3. Magna Carta ($24.5 million, 2007)
  4. St Cuthbert Gospel ($15.1 million, 2011)
  5. Bay Psalm Book ($14.5 million, 2013)
  6. The Rothschild Prayerbook ($13.9 million, 2014)
  7. Birds of America, John James Audubon ($12.6 million, 2010)
  8. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer ($11.1 million, 1998)
  9. Copy of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and other key acts of the first Congress in 1789, George Washington ($10.2 million, 2012)
  10. Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), The First Folio, William Shakespeare ($8.2 million, 2001)

(Prices adjusted for inflation)

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