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It is only from a careful comparison of the prices realised at auction that the value
of a given book can be estimated with any degree of certainty. The auction-room is a market in which everything falls at last to its level ; and it is there also that popular fancy and the decrees of fashion acquire a degree of solidity which may be looked for in vain elsewhere. The second volume of Book-Prices Current is an improvement on the first, in that the power of comparison is largely augmented, and the facilities for reducing any given volume to its normal pecuniary value considerably increased. As condition and binding control the market to a great extent, special care has been taken to give the fullest particulars compatible with reasonable brevity, so that those whose business or pleasure it is to consult the records of the prices at which books have been sold at auction may have it in their power to discriminate between intrinsic and extrinsic value, and to judge accordingly.
It would be an invidious task to inquire into the reasons which regulate the rise and fall in the value of books, especially as those reasons are in a measure based upon arbitrary causes, and derive their authority more from accidental circumstances than from any settled rule. There are undoubtedly certain well-known axioms which no prudent purchaser can afford to disregard ; but the primary cause regulating the value of a given book, at any specified time, is as impossible to analyse as is the caprice of the collector who buys it. Why, for example, should the great editions of the Fathers sell at the present day for no more than they did in 1676, the date of the first English sale of books by auction ; and why should the Editio Princeps of Homer in Greek (Florence, 1488) now realise close on £150, when two hundred years ago a perfect copy was knocked down for nine shillings? It is not because the present generation love Homer rather than Augustine or Chrysostom, nor solely on account of the relative scarcity of the voluines, for other books, which are exceedingly rare in the sense of not often being met with, are nevertheless of no value whatever. Possibly the reason is traditional, and the modern collector, spurred by the writings of Dibdin and Hazlitt, sees with their eyes and admires what they approve.
At the sale of Dr. Lazarus Seaman, which took place in Warwick Lane exactly 213 years ago, extraordinary prices were realised for some of the books quoted in the present volume. Eliot's Indian Bible, with the rare dedication to Charles II, inserted only in the twenty copies sent to England, brought nineteen shillings; at the sale of the Wimpole Library in June last, £580 was not considered too high a price to give (post, No. 6250); Cotton's “Way of the Churches of Christ in New England", together with nine other works by the same author, sold in Warwick Lane for seven shillings, being an average of nearly eightpence halfpenny per volume ; in Wellington Street at the present day an ordinary copy of the single work itself is worth nearly £i ios. (Nos. 3125, 3581). The Latin Bibles of the sixteenth century have not materially altered in value since Seaman's days, neither have the cumbrous works of the commentators.
One of the most important sales of the eighteenth century was the West sale, which took place in 1773. It was on this occasion that King George III secured some of his choicest specimens of early typography. Caxton's “Game and Playe of Chesse, 1474", realised L32 os. 6d.; not long ago an imperfect copy brought considerably more than eight times that sum (post, No. 6260). The same printer's “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, 1471”, realised £32 119.; at the Roxburghe sale in 1812 the price bid was £ 1,068 18s. Gower's “ De Confessione Amantis”, Caxton, 1493, sold for £995., but at the Roxburghe sale the price rose to £336. In fact, it may be said that the excessive increase in the value of books dates from the sale of the Roxburghe Library, and the formation of the Roxburghe Club in 1812-an increase which has become still further accentuated, as the reports of Sunderland, Syston Park, Crawford, Hardwicke, and other important dispersions which have taken place in our own time conclusively prove.
The popular taste has undergone a complete change since the period when important collections consisted almost exclusively of the works of the Puritan divines, and when collectors' books, as they are termed, were practically unknown. The complaint, often expressed, that a modern library is but a soulless body doomed to drag out its existence until the inevitable hour of its dissolution shall arrive, is perhaps the outcome of a desire for accumulation which has become a marked feature of the age, and which illustrates the perhaps too dogmatic assertion, that books are bought to look at and not to read.
A comparison of the prices realised at sales by auction is, as I have said, the best method of gauging the popular fancy; and a careful study of the two volumes of Book-Prices Current which have now appeared, combined with the necessary practical experience, will, I think, serve to parcel out the different classes of books in the order in which they are mainly sought after, and as follows :
1. Illustrated First Editions in contradistinction to Art Books.The works of Dickens and Thackeray (doubtless on account of the illustrations with which they are embellished) are bought up at prices which not long ago would have been deemed extravagant ; and the same remark applies to the works of such authors as William Combe, Surtees, Apperley, and to all those of a sporting or “free” character, which can boast of the coveted coloured plates of thirty years and more ago. First editions which are not illustrated are treated with scant courtesy, though even these are slightly advancing in price.
2. Works relating to the American Continent, and printed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, now realise enormous sums, and appear likely to bring even more as time goes on.
At a recent sale twelve small tracts, bound in a single quarto volume, realised no less than £555 (post, No. 6245). All books of this class are eagerly sought after, and will probably soon be absorbed by the American libraries.
3. Specimens of Old Typography.—These are the aristocracy of the book-shelf, which at one time ranked the highest in popular estimation. Their extreme rarity and consequent cost place them, however, beyond the reach of all but the few, and they are for this reason popular no longer. The value of books of this class is undoubtedly increasing.
4. Works printed in Scotland at any time previous to the year 1700 are increasing in value, and it is predicted that they also will continue to rise in the market.
5. Early editions of Old English Authors.—These occupy a somewhat curious position. The first four folios of Shakespeare always sell well, and are now becoming excessively scarce, owing to every available copy being secured at almost any price for the Libraries. The early quartos are not to be got. At the Daniel sale in 1864, what is perhaps the most desirable copy of the first folio in existence brought 682 guineas, while a collection of first quartos brought sums ranging from 109 guineas to 335 guineas each. The works of Greene, Marlowe, Ford, Massinger, and other old dramatists, though of no value at all comparable with the above, are rising in price, and, in the opinion of those most competent to judge, will continue to increase in value.
6. Old Bibles and Testaments, being the care of an especial class of collectors, continue to increase in their estimation. Modern Bibles, with the exception of Macklin's edition and one or two others, are practically unsaleable, sets of large quartos and folios being frequently knocked down for a few shillings.
7. Works on Natural History.—The value of these depends upon whether the plates are coloured. In this event the price is rising ; but if uncoloured, it is in many cases difficult to dispose of the works at all ; and it may be said that such undesirable specimens are losing what little hold they ever had on the market. Gould's ornithological books are among the most expensive examples in this class.
8. Antiquarian, Genealogical, and Heraldic Works.—These appear to be stationary in the market.
They sell readily, however, at prices which have not materially varied during the past five or six years.
9. Topographical Works show an undoubted upward tendency, though they have not yet reached their former position. Hals' " Parochial History of Cornwall”, though never completed, takes the lead of the county histories, and is likely to maintain it ; if in an uncut state it is excessively rare (post, No. 2389).
10. Art Books, with few exceptions, such as the works of Ruskin and Hamerton, seem to be at a low, though perhaps not their lowest ebb.
11. The Greek and Latin Classics have, curiously enough, fallen to such an extent from their high estate, that, unless any particular work can be regarded as a specimen of typography, and consequently capable of being classed under the third heading enumerated above, it may be abandoned to the “parcels” and other inferior lots. Whether they will ever come into favour again is a matter of surmise, but there can be no doubt that collectors' tastes do not at present lie in the direction of these once favoured books.
12. Theological and other Technical Works.-Exceptions apart, there is but little sale for these, and the prices realised are usually trivial in the extreme.
There remains but one other class of book, which, for want of a more convenient term, may be styled “ Modern Works of Limited Issue”. The demand for these depends upon a variety of circumstances which it is impossible to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that, in many instances, the price falls immediately after publication; and when this is the case, it is rare to find any improvement while the work remains in print, or indeed for a considerable time after the issue is exhausted.
Those subscribers who are in possession of the first volume of Book-Prices Current cannot fail to note the great falling off which has taken place in the character and quality of the books sold during the past season as compared with those disposed of during 1887. This is probably an accidental circumstance, and should not be regarded as in any way indicative of a permanent decline in literary taste, or as showing a waning interest on the part of collectors.
J. H, S. 3, Plowden Buildings, Temple E.C.