Art Peritus | The History of Book Collection

By: Elizabeth Staggs

Book Collection: Old and New Chapters

In a world increasingly dominated by digital screens and fleeting content, the allure of a physical book remains timeless. Book collecting is more than just a hobby; it’s a celebration of history, art, and the human experience. Each book on a collector’s shelf tells a unique story, not only through its words but also through its journey from one reader to the next. Whether you are an avid bibliophile with a library that rivals a small bookstore or a newcomer intrigued by the scent of old pages and the charm of first editions, you might share a common interest in the history of those pages.

The History of Book Collection

Book collections date back to the earliest civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Greece, with notable establishments such as the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt and Bibliotheca Ulpia in ancient Rome. These repositories housed scrolls and tablets containing religious texts, philosophical treatises, and historical records.

Private book collections as we know them began in Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries coinciding with the invention of the printing press, which made books more accessible and attractive for the increasingly literate public. The first book auctions took place in the mid-17th century, at which point, the first book catalogs began to surface. By the 19th century, we saw the golden age of book collecting (1790-1830), a period in which English bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin coined the word “bibliomania.” At this time, the first book societies formed, and we saw the rise of specialized book dealers and established auction houses, like Sotheby’s in London or Hôtel Drouot in Paris, both of which had become trusted sources for rare books.

The Value of Rare Books

There are many reasons a book might be collectible or valuable. According to book and manuscript specialist, Brian Kalkbrenner, AAA, first editions of books that have had an outsized influence on the history of ideas (for example Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; Karl Marx’s Das Kapital; Isaac Newton’s Principia), or first editions of works that are recognized as great achievements of literature (William Shakespeare’s first folio; Jane Austen’s novels; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; James Joyce’s Ulysses); or early printings of important historical documents (the Declaration of Independence; early abolitionist tracts); incunables– books that were published in the first fifty years following the invention of printing – namely works printed between 1455-1501; books bound in lavishly ornamented or jeweled bindings; books printed on vellum, describe just a few of the conditions that might factor into a book’s value. The overall category of rare books is comprised of dozens of sub-categories, each with its own “high spots”, i.e. milestone works that are highly prized by collectors of that category.

Furthermore, because books are multiples, condition is an important factor in determining the value of one from another. A book in excellent condition and complete in its contents (an important factor in early printed books, which are frequently lacking plates, illustrations, or various leaves) are valued over books in poor or incomplete condition. Likewise, copies of books with an author’s inscription or signature, or those with distinguished provenance or history correlated to the writing or publishing industry, are of particular interest to collectors.

Additionally, there are books that are collected due to errors, such as the “Wicked Bible” in which the word ‘not’ was left out of the Ten Commandments, leaving readers with ‘Thou Shalt Commit Adultery.’ There are only 15 known copies left in existence, and one sold for $48,000 at Christie’s in 2018. Similarly, fine First edition copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (a book whose popularity has probably eclipsed the Bible’s among modern collectors) have brought more than $50,000 at auction, and also famously bear a misprint on the rear flap of its dust jacket, which the publisher corrected by hand with black ink.

The rare book market is constantly in flux, just as it was in the 19th century. The categories of what is in fashion ebb and flow along with the rest of the art and fashion world. But Christie’s last two book auctions achieved over $7.3 and $4.5 million, well over the value by estimate, which means that books as a whole are very much in fashion in the collection world.

Bookmaking as an Art Today

During the Middle Ages, the art of bookmaking flourished in monasteries and scriptoria throughout Europe. Monks painstakingly copied manuscripts by hand, filling them with intricate illustrations and decorative motifs. These unique manuscripts were not only works of art but also valuable sources of information, cherished by religious institutions, nobility, and scholars. Today, some of these illuminated editions sell at auction for anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000.

Recently, this practice has returned as an art form. Creative book collectors are crafting their own unique and rare editions. While these modern book bindings form a niche category in book collecting, Kalkbrenner notes that even collectors of unique handbound works value bindings from before the 19th century over those later in time, despite their rarity. Additionally, more contemporary editions are valued higher when they are in the condition originally created by the publisher with the dust jacket intact.

Care of Book Collections

A careful collector will know the proper ways in which to store, handle, and maintain books, the process for which has obviously changed greatly over the years. According to the Library of Congress, books should be stored in a cool, dry environment with no exposure to direct light, away from radiators or vents, shelved straight upright with books of similar size or lying flat, and dusted regularly. Likewise, books should be handled with care using clean hands, far from any food or drink, and in such a way as to not damage the fragile pages. Gripping the center of the spine vs the top of the book, avoiding any “dog earing” as well as any acidic bookmarking materials will ensure that books handled remain in good condition.

Furthermore, books should not be stored in plastic containers, cardboard boxes, or wooden boxes.

What Does the Future of Book Collection Look Like?

Kalkbrenner believes that since rare books and manuscripts have for some time been a major category of collecting, they will continue to be so. “With over 500 years of printed culture to collect from (and a few thousand years of manuscript culture prior), there is enough material and diversity of subject matter to nourish rare book collectors and markets for centuries to come.”

The methods of creating, collecting, and caring for books has clearly evolved since ancient times, but one thing has changed very little since the first printing press; the right collector is looking for the right book at the right time. And like the art of collecting anything, the values may change, but the passion likely will not.

If you’re a collector seeking guidance on the value of your collection, the Art Peritus team of specialists is here to assist you.


Elizabeth Staggs is an author, freelance graphic designer, and Art Peritus’ Junior Marketing Associate.

Brian Kalkbrenner, AAA, is a Rare and Antiquarian Printed Books specialist. Brian has over 20 years of experience working with Rare Books and Manuscripts, having been on the staff of several member dealers of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, as well as spending several years as a Fine Books and Manuscripts Specialist at Bonhams Auctioneers. Brian has experience within all categories of printed books as well as with literary and historical manuscripts and archives, historical photographs, maps, and printed ephemera.

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