A paradise for bookworms
Joanna Pitman visits Maggs, the antiquarian booksellers, and learns how to build a library that will rise in value
Imagine coming across a book that has lain untouched for 100 years, and making an unexpected historical discovery. Ed Maggs, an antiquarian bookseller, had just such a thrill recently. ‘I was reading the epistolary diaries of a rather eccentric Victorian called Cuthbert Bede. I became strangely fixated by the story of this man who was obsessed by an unnamed woman. He fell into a state of schizophrenia and was incarcerated in an asylum called Munster House in Fulham. But as I was reading, I was wondering who this woman could have been — and wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out to be Alice Liddell? In the end it did turn out to be her. It was a real hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment. We sold the book to the Bodleian.’ Making such discoveries must be like unearthing archaeological remains. But Maggs is used to this sensation, because he works in a kind of permanent literary archaeological dig. As a fourth-generation antiquarian bookseller, Ed Maggs (known to his staff as ‘Mr Ed’) is managing director of Maggs Brothers Rare Books, housed in Berkeley Square in a splendid 18th-century house of fine decorated ceilings and Adam fireplaces. Maggs stocks rare books on subjects from natural history to travel and military and naval history. There are books lining every wall of the main rooms of the house, in the vaulted kitchen underground, in stores dug out under the garden, in the stables at the back (where the chief cataloguer in the military history department works between the iron railings of a horse stall) and in the original maids’ rooms, one of which is a kind of book hospital ward, filled with long lines of ailing books waiting patiently for treatment.
Many of us live with too many books and feel a sense of creeping book-breeding going on in our homes, so it is salutary to see such an extreme case of the problem. For collectors, it is heaven. Twelve expert members of staff are on hand with research and advice. And since the business began in the 1850s, Maggs has acquired plenty of experience in buying and selling rare books all over the world. In 1932, acting on behalf of the British Museum, they bought a Gutenberg Bible, c. 1455, from the cash-strapped Soviet government, as well as the celebrated Codex Sinaiticus, dated c. 350 and one of the earliest Bible manuscripts known. In the 1920s Maggs sold a collection of Napoleon’s books and memorabilia collated by his doctor, Vignali, which famously included Napoleon’s mummified membrum virilis.
Maggs regularly handles books of the very highest quality. It recently set a new record for the most expensive printed book when it bought a copy of the first one printed in England, Caxton’s Canterbury Tales, for £4.6 million. But it also offers books at more affordable prices.
‘We sell lots of fine books in the £1,000£10,000 range,’ says Robert Harding, specialist in pre-1800 British books and manuscripts. ‘What counts when collecting books is rarity and quality. Something like a first folio of Shakespeare is one of the great trophies of any collection and connoisseurs will wait for years to get the right one. But we still have people with lots of money who come in who are not connoisseurs, who are just shopping, and who make mistakes. What you need is patience and taste.’ A Middle Eastern sheikh came in not long ago and bought up incunabula (books printed before 1501) on a massive scale as well as huge numbers of rare books on natural history and antiquaries. When he sold his incunabula, he lost about a third of his money.
But as Harding points out, different aspects of a book appeal to different people. Most buy for the written word, others are more interested in the typography, the bindings or the illustrations. Some are simply dust-jacket fanciers. ‘Interestingly, sometimes a dust jacket in mint condition can account for 99 per cent of the value, so a book which is unread is, bizarrely, worth more than one which has been read.’ Many collectors are interested, on the other hand, in signs of a book having been read. Scribbled notes in the margins denoting an earlier reader’s thrill or disgust can add value. Henry VIII was forever scribbling in the margins of his books. Thomas Hardy once annotated an entire book on billiards. Mark Twain commented in a botched translation of Tacitus: ‘This book’s English is the rottenest that was ever puked upon paper.’ One fastidious contemporary scholar, finding pencilled marginalia in a book, began rubbing it all out, only to find on the last page that it had been signed in pencil: Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Maggs is relieved to declare that the fashion for buying books by the yard as furniture is finally over. ‘One poor man was forced to sell his entire collection because his wife wanted a minimalist white wall instead of a wall of bookshelves.’ But if your ambition is to build up a collection of books as a serious investment, you will be advised to find a subject that interests you and to follow your instincts. ‘Don’t rush into it. You need to have your own tastes, and you need to be methodical,’ says Harding. ‘You might, for example, enjoy Dickens or Jane Austen, so you could start by buying early editions of their books, and then buy the works of some of their contemporaries, and expand around that period into other types of writing, and then after a while you’ll find you have a library of books that will be coherent.’ Harding also recommends a visit to the Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia from 7 to 9 June.
The often-predicted demise of the published book in favour of the internet does not bother the antiquarian trade. ‘As books become less of a medium for quotidian research and use, we become more aware of their rarity value,’ says Maggs. ‘That is good for the private collector. We live in an age of great cultural elasticity. No medium is ever completely replaced. Truly rare books which are in decent condition tend to go up in value all the time. And absolute scarcity helps enormously. I recently found a classic text on collecting tram tickets, for example. It’s a fascinating book, and as far as I know there’s only one copy in existence. That is truly a rare and valuable find.’ One to start your collection, perhaps?