The Addictive Art of Collecting Books

When it comes to the rare, antique or collectible book, for a serious collector, there is more in play than just the book. “A book collection is not like assembling a coin collection,” advised Michael Slicker, Worthpoint’s expert on antique and collectible books, prints and ephemera. “It really is an act of creation.”

“It isn’t like putting coins in a slot,” Slicker said. “Each collector puts together a collection no one else has ever done.” It might be the evolution of the mystery novel or the scientific discourse created by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” “It can be anything you are interested in—movie scripts or World War II,” he said.

1859 edition of "Origin of the Species"

1859 edition of "Origin of the Species"

“All great collections take on a spherical shape,” Slicker said. “At the core of any collection are high points surrounded by supporting works.”

Taking Darwin’s “Origin of Species” as an example, a collection might include writings of the early 19th-century naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who posited an early theory of evolution in his 1802 book “Recherches sur l’Organisation des Corps Vivans”; writings of Darwin’s contemporaries, such as Thomas Huxley; and contemporary works, like Harvard biologist Edward Wilson’s 1999 “The Diversity of Life.”

“The collection gets to be creative. You get hooked, and you are really contributing to mankind’s knowledge,” Slicker said. “I know it sounds high falutin’, but that is what you are doing!” The fact that many such private collections end up in university libraries buttresses Slicker’s view.

Looking for a textbook, finding a new calling

Slicker’s career as an antiquarian bookseller began in 1972 when as a young psychology graduate student in search of a text, he wandered into The Old New York Bookstore in Atlanta.

Already a bit disillusioned with academe and the thought of clinical practice, Slicker found the bookstore a haven. “I could see I really didn’t have the patience to work with kids,” he said, “When you have a degree in psychology—basically a degree in reading, talking to people and drinking coffee—a bookstore was perfect.”

Slicker apprenticed at, managed and co-owned a bookstore in California and became increasingly interested in rare and antique books. In 1977, he opened Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Book collecting has its own body of knowledge and expertise, and when Slicker, who is one of about 450 qualified members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, examines a tome, there are things he’ll naturally check.

He will examine the binding, quality of the paper, sewing and whether the volume shows shelf wear or dog-eared pages and the page design and illustrations.

“If you enlarged a page and hung it on a wall, how would it look?” Slicker asked. As for illustrations, one key question is how well they are “married to the text.” The illustrator may also greatly increase the value of a work—be it Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, the early-20th century’s Maxfield Parrish or highly regarded contemporaries, such as Michael Hague and Barry Moser.

Title page of Durer’s “Vier Bücher von menschlicher”

Title page of Durer’s “Vier Bücher von menschlicher”

But that is not all there is to collecting. “Books have a way of becoming part of you,” Slicker said. “A lot of the value in a book is placed there by its owner.”

This is, however, still a market, and Slicker has watched it change in dramatic ways over the last 30 years. “We were very proud 10 or 15 years ago of our international business, as we would send a box of books every few months to England or some place in Europe,” he said. “Today over the Web, we are getting queries from abroad every week and sending books all over, from South Korea to Greece.”

Antique book collecting goes global

“The world is now our audience,” Slicker said. “On the other hand, our walk-in traffic has fallen off. It’s not as much fun to handle an Internet sale. We certainly miss those personal interactions.”

And for books—as for many other collectibles—the Internet has made what once appeared rare easy to find. “It seems that the genuinely rare things have appreciated rapidly. In contrast, books that are relatively common, even those with special interest have plummeted,” Slicker said.

A prime example is James Michener, whose works are widely collected. “When everyone realized how many copies were out there, the books suddenly devalued,” he said. “The $50 book is more likely to sell now for $10.”

In contrast, the 19th-century, illustrated “Views of the Holy Land” by Scottish artist David Roberts, in folio, has gone from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands, and the octavo edition has jumped from about $4,000 to $15,000, Slicker said.

Roberts' Arabs at Jacob's Well

Roberts' Arabs at Jacob's Well

Still, Slicker said he believes that eventually all the extras surplus “will get soaked up” and the market will rebound.

For the collector—especially the new collector—Slicker said, the goal should be the creation of a collection, not the market. “The key thing is to collect what you are interested in,” he advised. But he added, “Approach it as you would any other investment, in that you want to do is some research—get bibliographies, visit bookstores and book fairs, and ask a lot of questions.”

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