Visit England – the English tourist board – has designated 2017 the ‘Year of Literary Heroes’ in recognition of an unusual number of bibliographic milestones this year. The bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen will be marked by events at key Austen sites around the country and her face on the new £10 note. Enid Blyton Entertainment will publish new versions of the ‘Famous Five’ series to mark 75 years of lashings of ginger beer, while 20 years of the magic of Harry Potter will be remembered everywhere – including at the British Library.
Doubtless the book trade will welcome the publicity but do anniversaries and their nice round numbers have a positive impact on saleroom and retail prices? Not everyone is convinced.
Philip Errington at Sotheby’s acknowledges that auctioneers love anniversaries as they help focus the mind of sellers in particular. The bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 brought a glut of sales, so too those marking the centenary of the Irish Easter Rising in 2016.
Sotheby’s itself is celebrating 100 years at New Bond Street in a big way later in the year and might well be hoping for the odd choice consignment as a result. But, by and large, Errington says successful sales are those “structured by what comes in, not artificially created”.
Forum Auctions’ Rupert Powell agrees. “It might be possible to use the event as a marketing tool and piggy-back some publicity… but it is much better to simply have good material to sell, whatever the date.” He, nonetheless, will test the lasting effect of the 2016 bicentenary focus on Charlotte Brontë in early July, when Forum has a collection of Brontë firsts for sale.
Supply is, for many salerooms, the primary issue. The 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter was marked at the end of last year with a special sale at Bloomsbury Auctions, based around a single private collection of books and artwork. Not all auctioneers could follow suit.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, it is perhaps too much to hope that a first edition of 1667 might surface as it did back in 1867.
Then, in the work’s bicentenary year, Charles Edmonds of London booksellers Willis & Sotheran unearthed an exceptional copy in contemporary calf gilt from the forgotten riches of the Isham family library at Lamport Hall, near Northampton.
At the time Edmonds told The Times that “…in a back lumber room… covered with dust and exposed to the depredations of mice,“ he had “discovered a little collection of volumes… the very sight of which would be enough to warm the heart of the most cold-blooded bibliomaniac”.
This celebrated copy – provided with a wooden case made from the rafters of a house in Westminster in which Milton had commenced work on the poem – was soon after acquired by Wakefield Christie- Miller for his celebrated library at Britwell Court, and in 1919 sold by a descendant at Sotheby’s for £460.
It has changed hands on several occasions since (at Christie’s for £38,000 as part of the great English literature collection of Arthur A Houghton, and for $230,000 when the Haven O’More collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 1989). Where is it now, one wonders?
Too much choice
In short, media attention and a vibrant marketplace don’t always go hand in hand.
Rarely ever does an anniversary affect auction price, says Chris Albury of Dominic Winter. “Literary festivals or media attention might add some prominence – but at the end of the day they don’t really have much influence.”
Albury also sees potential for quite the opposite effect. Collections assembled with an eye on anniversaries, he feels, may struggle if buyers have too much choice. He cites all the material that was gathered by salerooms to mark the 2005 bicentenary of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar.
James Hallgate of Lucius Books in York believes other factors can be more effective in boosting the appeal of a book or an author.
“With the news of the death of an author you will have a brief influx of sales and interest in that author as collectors seek to complete collections. But a new film (such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons), a well-received TV series (Winston Graham’s Poldark) or new theatre productions (Michael Murpurgo’s War Horse) are far more influential in bringing forgotten or unappreciated authors or novels back into the limelight.”
So look out this year for an upcoming AA Milne biopic with Winnie the Pooh once again receiving the big-screen treatment.
It is not that dealers are immune to a media opportunity. Many will seek to draw browsers’ attention to certain writers, special collections and book events. Shapero Rare Books has been quick to show choice items of stock alongside a calendar of this Year of Literary Heroes.
The London firm has already made a topical non-fictional sale this year. Among Shapero’s opening sales at TEFAF Maastricht was the lavishly illustrated folio Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam) by the Dutch botanist, zoologist and painter Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) priced at £125,000.
On the 300th anniversary of her death, Merian’s life and work will be celebrated at an international symposium in Amsterdam this June.
Carol Murphy at Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers says that “should an anniversary attract any media attention… we might put something in the window [even if] any publicity will probably not stick in the public mind for more than five minutes”.
For others it is the nature of the anniversary that counts – “if a book is a particularly iconic one, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, say, then that may affect the value,” says Philip Barraclough of York Modern Books.
The 60th anniversary of the publication of Orwell’s most famous work actually falls next year, so we shall see.
But the same rules of collecting may apply whatever time a book is offered for sale. As Tom Ayling of Jonkers Rare Books of Henley-on-Thames puts it: “While [an anniversary] may be a nice excuse to collect a good book, it doesn’t make that book any better.”
Harry Potter at 20
That all said, the feeling is it could be a good 20th anniversary term at Hogwarts. The boy wizard can expect a busy year – although with the first issue of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone limited to just 500 copies (most of which went to libraries), decent copies are uncommon.
“Over the years prices have soared and dipped again – reflecting the peaks and troughs that came with the start and eventual end of the film releases,” said Philip Errington of Sotheby’s, “but prices do seem to have picked up at the end of last year.”
Quite so. There was a record bid of £35,000 on a straightforward, uninscribed copy of …the Philosopher’s Stone at Bonhams last November, then in December, at Sotheby’s, an inscribed, near mint example of that first issue reached £46,000.
Each overturned a record that had stood since 2007 – the year that saw the publication of the seventh and last book in the series.
Paperback first editions of …the Philosopher’s Stone are also quite scarce and so too hardback firsts of the Chamber of Secrets and a coveted version of the Prisoner of Azkaban giving the copyright to ‘Joanne’ rather than JK Rowling.
Any Potter signed by Rowling in her days as a jobbing author, limited editions, original artwork and the like also command a premium.
And what price the chair upon which the author sat while penning her first two works? Auctioned for charity in 2002 when it sold at $21,000, this Rowling decorated 1930s oak dining chair later sold on eBay in 2009 for $29,000 before reappearing at Heritage in Dallas last April where it sold at $320,000 (£226,470).
And what of future anniversaries?
Guessing the collecting habits of the next generation is fraught with difficulty. But perhaps someone choosing to mark literary anniversaries in 50 years’ time might pick out a recently published debut novel called Darke?
Colm Tóbin and Philip Pullman are just two among the many who have lavished praise on the first novel of Rick Gekoski. His profession? An academic turned writer and dealer in modern English, Irish and American literature.
John Milton agrees a contract with Samuel Simmons, with an initial payment of £5, for the publication of Paradise Lost.
The ninth and final part of Lawrence Sterne’s singular but serially digressive masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, was published. So too is Maria Edgworth’s Castle Rackrent, considered the first historical and first Anglo-Irish novel.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is born. Her best-known creation, the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is published in January 1818.
Jane Austen dies in Winchester aged 41. In her lifetime she achieved success with four anonymously published works – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818.
Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress, the second novel by Charles Dickens, began its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany.
Last year was the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, but this year marks a double anniversary for the Brontë sisters with the 170th anniversary of the publication of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights.
The 150th anniversary of the birth of Arnold Bennett. His first novel A Man from the North, a semi-autobiographical tale about an aspiring novelist in London, is published in 1898. The copy pictured below is priced at £450 with Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers.
Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance, in A Study in Scarlet, came in an 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual – a considerable rarity nowadays.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula rises from the literary grave for the first time.
Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, is born.
TS Eliot’s first book of poetry, Prufrock and other Observations, was published by The Egoist. The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock had first appeared two years earlier in the monthly magazine, Poetry.
Over four years in the 1920s, AA Milne and Ernest Shepard gave the world four now very famous and much-loved children’s books. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of the last of them, the collection of verses called Now We Are Six.
The Hobbit or There and Back Again by JRR Tolkien is published. First edition copies of the story of Bilbo Baggins complete with the dustcover designed by the author are highly desirable.
Enid Blyton publishes the first of her ‘Famous Five’ books. What had been planned as a series of six books ran to 21.
Stephen King, author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy, is born. So too Salman Rushdie, whose second novel Midnight’s Children (1981), is twice voted the best of all Booker Prize winners.
Arthur Ransome, writer of the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books, dies aged 83.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest post-war travel writer, is published.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling is published. A battered first issue copy, once part of the library of the Holly Park Montessori School in north London, sold for £7000 at Bonhams in March 2016.