HongKong Business

Old books can be more than just a good read

By Ann Williams (HK Edition)
Updated: 2010-11-19 08:03
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Old books can be more than just a good read

The market for antiquarian books has increased steadily over the years and even the recent global financial crisis has not suppressed the eagerness of buyers for important books, according to Paul Feain of Cornstalk Bookshop in Sydney.

He is also one of the organizers of the upcoming Fourth International Antiquarian Bookfair, which will take place from December 3-5 at the Pacific Place Conference Center in Hong Kong.

The strict definition of an antiquarian book is one that is more than 100 years old, but as Feain notes, antiquarian booksellers such as himself deal in books that are important to the culture of the time, so there are many 20th-century items that are important to the rare bookseller.

A number of factors contribute to the value of a book - top prices at the fair include HK$4.25 million for a rare first edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and HK$1.44 million for a rare first-edition of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens.

"Its importance in the canon of human discovery and influence can be very important, such as the first editions of the writings of Karl Marx, Copernicus, early editions of Confucius, Einstein, early printings of the Bible, and in the East early printings of religious and philosophical works," noted Feain. Others include the great works of travel and geographic discovery, notably Marco Polo and Captain Cook.

"The rarity of an important work will make it more valuable. And everyone loves a mint copy of an old book. A collectible old book in fine condition can be worth many times more than the same book in poor condition. Often the first book by an author of literature who becomes famous is worth far more than later more important books," he added.

Feain said that the best advice he can give to anyone wishing to collect antiquarian books is to "collect with passion in a field that you are passionate about. Collect books that you will want to read. You will soon become an expert and if you collect like this for a number of years you may even become the expert. Catalogue the collection as you go and read anything on collecting in your field and also write about it, even if you are only writing for a very small audience."

He himself specializes in a few different subjects that are dear to his heart. "I love very old medical books and always have a number of them from the 16th through to the 19th century. And then something entirely different - I love 20th-century crime books still in their dust wrappers and I carry a large stock of Australian crime fiction books."

Antiquarian books are available from a variety of sources. "There are lots of sites on the Internet - I recommend www.ilab.org - and there are still numerous book shops throughout the world," said Feain. "Here in Hong Kong there are three wonderful shops that cater for different collectors - Picture This, Lok Man Rare Books and Indosiam Rare Books. Get yourself on booksellers' mailing lists and try and get close to a couple of knowledgeable booksellers. Go to book fairs, ask questions of booksellers and fellow collectors and join book collectors' societies, and if you cannot find one in your country start one."

The owner of Picture This, Christopher Bailey, said: "Our main focus is history and travel of Hong Kong, China and the Far East; 20th-century literature, including Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming and Robert van Gulik; and classic children's books."

He sees the market for antiquarian books as young but growing. "There's a mix of Western and Chinese clients; new collectors are entering the market every year. We are beginning to see collectors and dealers from the mainland coming down to Hong Kong to buy, and the market looks promising for the future."

Feain concurs: "The spread of education, the increase in the standard of living and the growing affluence of the region are making rare books on China and other subjects more sought after. The new buyers are in some cases the beneficiaries of the increasing wealth but they are also ordinary middle-class people who are the beneficiaries of increasing education and general prosperity. Also, the Chinese people have always been wonderful collectors of all sorts of desirable objects."

(HK Edition 11/19/2010 page2)