Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Price Inflation vs Second-Hand Book Price Inflation

1903 auction

So: rummaging around looking for things connected with something else (I shan’t bore you, here, with what) I chanced upon a notice in The Burlington Gazette (April, 1903, pp. 19–24) of some then-recent auction sales of libraries belonging to various eminent book-collectors. Curious, I browsed. I suppose I was basically interested in whether book-price inflation has proved greater or lesser than the officially sanction measure of RPI inflation. You’re aware I’m sure of the Mars Bar Inflation Index, which measures price increases by pegging them to the increase in price of the titularly named delicious-chocolate-snack, thereby avoiding the vissicitudes and inaccuracies of other measures of this metric. Books, I think, are a less reliable index of this matter than chocolate bars.

Take, for example, the fact that the 1903 sale of the library of Sir Thomas David Gibson Carmichael, Bart., of Castlecraig, Peebles, included ‘a copy of the Euclid, from the press of Ratdolt, Venice, 1482, the first work printed with mathematical diagrams.’ A historically significant and very rare volume! In 1903 that book went for £31, which (and though it’s notoriously difficult to scale old-money to new-money values, since some 1900-ish items were relatively much cheaper and others relatively much more expensive than 2022-ish equivalents) means, according to this not atypical calculation engine, a modern book-buyer might spend about £4000 on it today. £4K? A recent auction of this same title by Christies estimated it would go for $60,000, when in fact it went for $300,000. That’s a lot more than four grand.

On the one hand, the Burlington auction book records that a complete set of Walter Scott first editions went for £800 1903 pounds— something like £100,000 today — which seems, shall we say, over-priced by twenty-first century sensibilities. On the other hand a [deep breath now] First Folio Shakespeare went, as you can see from the screenshot at the head of this post, for £305 in 1903, which is roughly £40K in 2022 currency. All I can say is: if somebody offers you an authentic Shakespeare First Folio for that kind of peanuts-cash today, grab it, acquire it, snap it up, bite off their hand, and don’t look back. [The last one sold fetched $10 million at auction in 2020].

Look! Here’s an edition of the 1667 Paradise Lost for £102! With ‘seven leaves of arguments and errata’ (the report doesn’t specify whose)!

One hundred two measley 1903 pounds is under £12,000 in 2022 coinage and here I feel obliged to insert a shut-up-and-take-my-money gif. Would I pay £6500 (1903: £50) for an original quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, ‘said to have eluded Shakespeare’s biographers and bibliographers’? Is the Pope Catholic? Do bears collect antiquarian books in the woods?

My astonishment here reflects the sense that, First Folio headline-grabbers aside, the price of second hand books has manifestly plummeted in recent years, as people (other than myself) seek to declutter their homes of volumes. I can’t tell you how many old books I’ve bought from Oxfam, via eBay or Abebooks, to my wife’s chagrin, clogging our shared living space, at ridiculous knock-down prices. The moral is: though the value of an elite of super-collectible titles has massively outstripped inflation, the majority price of old books has underperformed, sometimes ridiculously. When I was researching and writing my biography of H G Wells, I went online to buy a bunch of his titles — not for research exactly, since all his texts are online now anyway, but just to own some first editions. Set aside War of the Worlds and Time Machine (still quite pricey, those) and most of Wells’s first-edition oeuvre is a click away, and costs a few pounds a title, less than a cup of Starbucks coffee. I bought a first edition of the three volume William Clissold (1926) — vols 2 and 3 uncut! a towering if underappreciated masterpiece of 1920s fiction! — for less than the price of one edition of the Saturday Guardian. That can’t be right!

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