2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Public Domain
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 times.”)
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).