LONDON — Johannes Gutenberg or Tim Berners-Lee? Movable type or the World Wide Web?
There’s no way of knowing which of these will ultimately prove more influential, but nowadays there’s no disputing that people are spending more time browsing the internet than reading printed text. This has had any number of knock-on effects, both positive and negative. Take, for instance, the age-old business of buying and selling rare books.
Rare Books London is a sprawling umbrella promotion of auctions, fairs, talks and tours that takes place here from May through June. The “jewel in the crown” of the event, according to its website, was the A.B.A. Rare Book Fair, whose 61st edition, featuring 175 British and international dealers, closed on Saturday. More than a third of the exhibitors were based outside Britain.
After 19 years at the Victorian-era Olympia exhibition center in West London, the three-day fair had moved to Battersea Evolution, a more up-to-date temporary venue on the south side of the River Thames. This latest incarnation of the A.B.A. fair was opened by David Attenborough, narrator of the BBC’s acclaimed “Life on Earth,” “The Living Planet” and “Blue Planet” natural history series.
“Olympia was associated with old stuff,” said Andrea Mazzocchi, a senior specialist at the London-based exhibitor Bernard Quaritch, founded in 1847. “We need to get away from people feeling that old books are dusty and boring,” he added.
But this rare book fair in a London park remained a world away from the V.I.P. glitz of high-end art fairs like Frieze or Masterpiece. Traffic congestion created by the ever-popular annual Chelsea Flower Show nearby made it difficult for visitors to reach the fair. Those who did make it, and who sought refreshment, could buy a small plastic cup of English sparkling wine for 8 pounds, or about $11.
Sophie Schneideman, a London dealer specializing in fine 20th-century privately printed books, was offering one of 500 copies on paper of the Doves Bible, with red initial letters by Edward Johnston, published by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker at the Doves Press in Hammersmith, west London, from 1903 to 1905. Revered by many as the supreme achievement of Arts and Crafts typography, it was priced at £15,000. Ms. Schneideman said she sold half a dozen items priced between £50 and £10,000, but not the Doves Bible.
“The atmosphere and buzz was nonexistent. Many of the older customers couldn’t face getting there,” she said in an email.
But other exhibitors were more upbeat about the new venue. Once a clash with the Chelsea Flower Show is avoided, and a new subway stop opens nearby in 2020, the event will come into its own, they suggested. “It’s definitely better than the old venue,” said Bernard Shapero, another London-based exhibitor, who specializes in fine illustrated books.
The rare book trade faces plenty of challenges. Unlike great robber-baron bibliophiles such John Pierpont Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, today’s super-wealthy prefer to build art collections rather than libraries. Art has become a globalized alternative investment, generating a top-performing yield of 21 percent in 2017, according to the latest wealth report published by the realtors Knight Frank. Rare books do not feature in the report’s basket of “luxury investments.”
Dealers and auctioneers tend to refer to books instead as “stores of value,” reflecting a generally static price structure and customer base, which doesn’t excite alternative investors. As result, the rare book trade depends on knowledgeable collectors and institutions — and fellow dealers — to drive sales.
And there were sales at the A.B.A. fair, such as when Aquila Books of Calgary in Canada sold an 1871 first edition of Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man,” in which the author used the word “evolution” for the first time. Mr. Attenborough bought it, for £4,000.
Aquila, which specializes in exploration and evolution, made about £30,000 of sales at the A.B.A. fair, according to its founder, Cameron Treleaven. “I’m happy with that,” said Mr. Treleaven, who explained that fairs accounted about 40 percent of his annual sales, with another 35 percent generated through online trading.
“The arrival of the internet was the defining moment of my career,” added Mr. Treleaven. “It allowed us to find clients we never knew existed.”
As in the art market, live auctions are the other main channel through which rare books are sold. But unlike contemporary art, books tend to sell in line with pre-sale estimates.
On Wednesday, Bonhams put under the hammer the natural history library of the Wassenaar Zoo in the Netherlands. Founded in 1937 by Pieter W. Louwman, father of the Bonhams co-owner Evert Louwman, the zoo closed in 1985. The belated sale of its library, comprising 234 lots, featured some of the 19th century’s most sumptuously illustrated ornithological books.
Most valuable of these was a seven-volume first edition of John Gould’s “The Birds of Australia,” which started publication in 1840. This copy also included three of the work’s five supplementary volumes and was illustrated with more than 600 hand-colored lithographs, mainly based on drawings by the ornithologist’s wife, Elizabeth Gould. It is still regarded as the most comprehensive work on the subject — the Goulds discovered more than 300 new species during their research in Australia in 1838-1840.
The Wassenaar Zoo copy of “Birds of Australia” sold, much as estimated, for £187,500 with fees, or about $249,000. A first edition with one supplement, but in better condition, sold, much as estimated, for $295,000 at Christie’s last year, according the database Rare Book Hub, based in San Francisco.
“Books are never going to be like contemporary art. They don’t go gangbusters,” said Matthew Haley, director of the book department at Bonhams. “It’s slow and steady.”
Gould’s “Birds of Australia,” like the Doves Bible or Gutenberg’s first printed Bible, is an exceptional work of art, but unfortunately, being bound as a book, it lacks the wall power of a big-name modern or contemporary painting. The subtlety of books as status symbols has also hindered them from attracting the new wealth that has followed art.
How, then, can the rare book trade thrive in the 21st century?
That is where Tim Berners-Lee’s invention might come in. Dealers have complained that for many buyers, browsing on the internet has replaced browsing in shops, resulting in the closure of countless used book stores, but the web does allow dealers to show off their books to a new, visually minded audience.
Bernard Quaritch, for instance, took a rare single leaf from Gutenberg’s epoch-making 1450 Bible to the A.B.A.A. fair in New York and the A.B.A. one in London, priced at £100,000. It didn’t manage to sell at these fairs, but it is out there on the company’s Instagram account. As of Thursday the post had attracted 98 likes.
The dusty old book trade is evolving. Gradually.
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