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book collecting

Approaches and Costs

The three traditional approaches to collecting first editions are the author collection, the subject collection, and the cabinet collection. This last is a collection of deliberately small size (originally a single bookcase) designed to represent the epitome of one bibliophilic category, such as 15th-century French illumination. The most valuable first editions are of literary classics and early or obscure works of famous authors. The desirability of the first edition is based not only on speculative but also on historical considerations; a first edition is one step from a manuscript. Book collectors use points, such as broken type and text excisions, to distinguish between different issues of first editions.

Modern collectors who cannot afford first editions—Poe's Tamerlane (Boston, 1827) generated $165,000 at an auction in 1990—collect in peripheral fields. Such fields include Americana; books illustrated by famous artists; early books on natural history (especially those with colored plates); books printed by such noted private presses as the Kelmscott Press, the Cuala Press, and the Nonesuch Press; early books recounting travel and exploration; ancient manuscripts; and letters. Some books in these fields, sold at auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, bring substantial prices. For example, John James Audubon's The Birds of America was sold at Christie's in New York for $4.07 million dollars in 1992, a record price for both an illustrated book and a printed piece of Americana.

Information on the existence, location, and prices of collector's items can be found in author bibliographies, dealer and auction catalogs, and book-collecting periodicals such as The Colophon (1930–50), The Book Collecting World, and the Antiquarian Bookman. American Book Prices Current (published annually since 1895) lists titles and prices of books sold at important auctions in the United States, Britain, and Canada.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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