Buy with Discrimination
Adapted from Our Literary Deluge and Some of Its Deeper
Waters by Francis Whiting Halsey (1902)
Few persons will believe that the buying of old books
is a profitable undertaking. Common opinion sets it down as an easy and
agreeable way for a rich man to spend superfluous income, or a poor one
to make way with earning that ought to go into a savings bank. If made with
proper diligence and discrimination, however, a library of rare books may
become a good investment.
When the Menzies collection of Americana was sold,
about twenty-five years ago, this fact was forcibly impressed upon collectors.
It was an open secret that the library had brought double what it cost,
Americana having appreciated wonderfully in value. (By occupation, Mr. Menzies
was a lumber merchant. One day a customer who had called at his house was
kept waiting in the parlor, where he found on the table Mr. Menzies’ most
recent purchase—a scarce treasure in faultless condition, the tops
of the leaves still uncut. Finding this an obstruction in examining the
book, the customer proceeded to tear them open with his forefinger, leaving
ragged edges and seriously damaging the value of the book. When Mr. Menzies
was afterward telling this story to a friend he was asked, “Did you
ever charge your customer for that book?” To which he replied, “Many
He had the same foresight for books that is shown by
men who make money from other investments.
Later came the sale of the Brinley collection,
which realized $127,000. It had not cost Mr. Brinley anywhere near that
sum. Many volumes that sold for large prices he had been able to pick up,
through rare industry and thorough knowledge, for trifles. Stories of his
going about among ancient New England farmhouses and the dusky bookstalls
of Boston and New York were many. Mr. Brinley collected books before the
prospective value of Americana had been foreseen. He often obtained permission
to see “any old books” that might be stored away in chests and
barrels, in barns and garrets. For small sums or by an exchange for books
by modern popular authors, he many times secured treasures literally worth
their weight in gold. Should a man want to buy books on which his heirs
may reap a substantial profit, let him buy Americana. It is as certain to
rise in value as is any sort of possession a man can have.
But the collector must buy with discrimination.
In the number and variety of its volumes, probably no private collection
ever surpassed that of Richard Heber. It was a miscellaneous collection
in every department of literature and had been purchased with little regard
to cost. Heber had mere book hunger, in which taste and judgment had the
subordinate place. He is believed to have possessed 110,000 volumes and
filled eight houses with books—two in London, two in the country,
and one each in Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent, besides small collections
elsewhere. When sold, in 1834, the books fetched $285,000, which was little
more than half what they had cost.
In striking contrast with Heber’s methods
stand the methods of Bertram, Earl of Ashburnham (1797–1878), whose
collection was sold in London only a few years ago for a sum in excess of
$300,000. This represented a profit, and, in the case of many books, a very
large one. The Earl of Ashburnham, in the main, knew what to buy—what
books collectors wanted or were likely to want. In a word, he had the same
foresight that is shown by men who make money from other investments. He
knew how to buy cheaply the things that would eventually be worth more.
Lord Ashburnham collected throughout his life.
The passion had been born in him while a boy at school, and it lasted until
he died. When he had given an order to an agent to buy a certain book, he
meant that no limit was imposed. The book was to be bought whatever the
price. His wrath was certain to descend on the head of a man who failed
to remember this fact. He once gave a commission to buy a Second Folio of
Shakespeare, a clean copy in the original binding. Second Folios were then
not in much demand and the auction house estimated the value at £15
(about $75). His agent kept bidding until the price ran to £60, when
he dared not go any further and lost the book to the Earl’s lasting
displeasure. Years afterward, this incident was recalled in proof of the
Earl’s foresight. That copy of the second folio sold in 1864 for
£146, and again in 1896 for £540 ($2,900).