Sunday 9 June 2024

To the collector, the spoils

Last month I explored the Firsts Rare Book Fare in London's Saatchi Gallery. I went with a good friend of mine who - as well as being a fellow Deighton collector - is one of the world's top Ian Fleming collectors, with a collection that is the envy of many. 

Funeral in Berlin ... at a price

Tbere were plenty of Ian Flemings on show - a complete collection of first editions would set you back £145,000! But there were also a good number of Deighton first editions on show, the nicest of which was the Funeral in Berlin with the Michael Caine wraparound, at nearly £,2000 (above).

There were, naturally, books from every possible author you could think of, classic and modern, and covering both fiction and non-fiction alike. 

The size of the show - and the prices of the Flemings and other 'star' books (£11,000 for a first edition Harry Potter) - point to two things. One, even in this digital age, there remains a market for both books, and rare books; and two: prices, while they may seem outrageous, continue to reflect the old economic adage of supply and demand.

Some books are clearly more in demand than others. Why does an Ian Fleming first edition of Casino Royale cost anywhere up to £25,000, whereas a first edition of SS-GB by Len Deighton, or The Fourth Protocol by Frederik Forsyth cost maybe £50 to £110?

Lots of factors, I suppose, with Fleming. Timing: the publication of Casino Royale in the 'fifties as the UK emerged from the privation of rationing, but with the heroism of the war still fresh in people's minds, is one thing; the desire of readers for escapism and adventure, too, of course; Fleming's connections in the publishing and media world helped launch the series, of course. Plus, they're clearly very readable books, still.

The films, of course, also boosted popularity of anything associated with James Bond, not least the rare book market. My Fleming-collecting pal regaled me of stories of first editions passed on decades ago when on offer at a tiny fraction of the current market price, with regret in his voice. Fleming collecting requires deep pockets.

John Le Carre was perhaps the author whose rarities at the show were starting to aspire to Fleming prices and collectability, with some first editions of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold demanding £4,000 to £5,000 or more, and many other of his books heading north of £2,000 a short.

Like most other forms of collecting, as decades go by, scarcity increases, and prices necessarily do too. Despite the best efforts of the dealers at the show and book dealers around the world to find, preserve and bring to market lost treasures and ephemera, inevitably editions will disappear from circulation, be destroyed, get defaced, or simply mislaid.

In my experience as a collector of Deightons, it is the very scarcity of some books and items that makes them attractive as collectable items; that, and the obvious factors of great story telling and interesting cover designs, of course. But the scarcer something is, the more a collector will want it.

A relative bargain, based on the median prices evident elsewhere at Firsts

On this blog, over the years, I've made posts about a number of super rare items that I've been lucky enough to find - sometimes after an intense search, sometimes just through dumb luck - and there is a frisson of excitement whether at a rare book far, a second half bookshop, or online, whenever something rare comes up. The dealers at the show understand this, and create value for themselves and collectors by scouring the globe for rare items and bringing them together at shows like Firsts, where some will dig into their pockets, while other visitors will just look on and admire (as I did on that day).

Rarity in the case of Ian Fleming books means eye-wateringly high prices, because the world of Fleming collecting is for the upper echelons of the collecting world. The heavy hitters. The big guns. The top collectors know the top dealers personally; they all know their clients 'want lists', and know the value of repeat business to both parties, and of discretion. It's a fascinating relationship to understand at this rarified end of the book collecting world.

With Len Deighton's books, prices are more reasonable on the whole. Of course, first editions of The Ipcress File, Billion-Dollar Brain, Funeral in Berlin and Horse Under Water do attract quite high prices, being now so limited in number (for example, The Ipcress File pictured below was going for £2,450). But then, other editions, like the SS-GB shown above, were more reasonable, at £70, as supplies remain good, given the large print runs these books got compared to earlier stories.

Rarity, of any author's books, means higher prices

I started collecting Deighton's because I enjoyed the books and found them an affordable and relatively straightforward option to collect. So, while I've spent good money on the odd rare item, I've never had to break the bank and go beyond my means.

If you're a fan of Ian Fleming, or John Le Carre, starting a collection now - as opposed to thirty years ago - is now pretty much out of the question for many people.

Who knows what the next Ian Fleming will be? Will there ever be another popular fiction writer that dominates the new and rare book markets as he did? Of modern authors, I think right now J K Rowling is starting to show signs of being the modern standard setter for rare and collectable book prices, judging by what I saw at the show. 

But then, there's no rhyme or reason sometimes to why some authors are popular - and pricey - while some can be purchased for virtually nothing. Something can always change - a film often help - and propel an author into the collecting stratosphere. 

I think one such author who could become as collectable as Len Deighton or John Le Carre is Mick Herron, whose Slow Horses series of books is now, judging by what I saw at First, eminently collectable and rising up the charts. The popular TV series may also drive interest in the original books, too.

I remember discussing with my pal in the pub afterwards that book collecting - like records or stamp collecting - could be seen as a form of addiction in a way: the desire for 'just one more' book for the collection is powerful. It's not for nothing, perhaps, that the stands at the show were peopled by book 'dealers'.

But, as addictions go, it's fairly benign. No one really gets harmed by it. Both sides - sellers and buyers - benefit from the transaction. And both help preserve our literary history, one book at a time which, in this electronic, on-demand, screen driven world, can't be a bad thing.