Rare Book Collecting with Pom Harrington
Peter Harper: Hello and welcome to Three Pillars podcast. I’m Peter Harper, the managing director and CEO of Asena Advisors. If you’re not familiar with the business we’re a multifamily office advising foreign family offices and private clients on US direct investment and mergers and acquisitions. In this episode of the Wealth Management series, we’ll be discussing investing in collectible rare books with Pom Harrington. Pom, thanks a lot for taking the time out of your schedule to meet with us today.
Pom Harrington: Hello, Peter, and thank you. My name is Pom Harrington and I’m the owner of Peter Harrington rare books. We focus on rare book collecting. It was founded by my father and our business is one of the largest rare book dealerships in the world. And we’re featured this year in the Sunday Times, BDO Profit Track 100 as one of Britain’s biggest, fastest growing private companies with profits the last three years. I’m also the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, which is the senior trade body for rare book dealers in the U.K. and also happens to be the chairman of Firsts, which is London’s rare book for events and it’s the key annual book fair in the U.K. I personally love to collect books and I find it fun and it’s personal and it happens to be my hobby.
Peter Harper: Well, that’s fantastic. I mean, if you’re lucky enough to do what you do for a living and it’s a hobby, that’s always fantastic. Well, Pom, as I said before, thanks very much for making the time. For our listeners, I think it’d be great to sort of kick off with this a general overview of sort of “Buying 101”, if they’re thinking about getting into collecting rare books, where’s the best place to start? How they should be thinking about it? Is it like other investments or is it more like a collectible focus and maybe some market trends and what you’re seeing in the market at the moment?
Pom Harrington: Ok, well, quite a few questions there, but I think right back at the beginning, when we meet prospective new collectors of books, I think where people start is they buy or pursue books that have influenced their lives. So it might be reading Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne as a child, or Lord of the Rings as a teenager, or you studied Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations at university.
Pom Harrington: What they then want to do is: how did this book appear when it first came out? And really the point of book collecting is to acquire the book in the condition it was born in. So in the case of Adam Smith, you put it in an 18th century binding. And if it’s Lord of the Rings, you want them fine in the original dust jackets. So that’s what we aspire to. You want the first printing. Sometimes you aim for autographs, which then add another component to it. So that’s what people start.
Pom Harrington: The next thing is you buy the best you can afford. There’ll be huge sliding price scales for first editions. And for example, with Lord of the Rings as an example, it was issued in dust jackets. A first edition set in the trilogy without dust jackets can cost you 2, 3, 4, 5 thousand dollars, but a fine set will be 50 thousand dollars. So there’s a big wide spectrum there, what you can spend. But basically you buy the best you can afford because when it comes to selling and if it had problems when you bought it, it’s still going to have problems when you sell it and it’ll be harder to sell. So quality really comes through.
Peter Harper: I think the big take away for me was really focusing on first editions. You might like a book and you might be interested in it, but is it even worth acquiring something if it’s not a first edition?
Pom Harrington: We always aim for first printing, and that is, again, the primary goal, the price, if it’s not a first printing, falls off a cliff. I mean, the common one is, of course, at the moment as Harry Potter. This is the great big rising star of collectible in the last decade or so. And a true first of the first Harry Potter book will now set you back a 100 thousand dollars or possibly more. The second printing, 2 or 3 thousand dollars. And the difference is literally a month, they look exactly the same apart from one little digit on the back of the title page to tell you that it’s the first printing. So, again, I mean when we look at books and when you’re spending a lot of money in books, it’s an investment of your money. And when we look at books in terms of what can happen in value, we can’t say what’s going to happen in the future, but we look at the track history of what happens with books in the past. And if you look at certain books like Harry Potter or maybe a bit more conventional, Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, the beautiful copies that 25 years ago, you could buy an Origin of Species first edition for, say, 30, thousand dollars. These days, it’s going to cost you 300 to 400 thousand dollars. If you bought a second printing 30 years ago, you probably bought it at 15 hundred bucks, now it’s going to be 6,7 thousand bucks. You know, it’s just dragging behind. The truly great stuff seems to just keep getting greater. And just remember, when you find something that’s truly amazing, if you think it’s amazing when you come to sell it, it’s much more likely someone else will think it’s amazing too.
Peter Harper: That’s a really important point. And Pom when we were catching up previously, one thing that was really interesting to me was you were talking about trends and things that come in and out of fashion. So thinking about someone with your type of experience, certain books you can spot and would say, I imagine these might be a trend of the time, whereas other books have got, you know, maybe the prices aren’t jackknifing up, but they’re just slowly increasing over time. Can you talk a bit about the importance…?
Pom Harrington: I mentioned Origin of Species, I think that’s a good example of where natural science and science in general is just being more and more in fashion. A bit from technology stock and the money coming into there, but also natural sciences, environmentalism, climate change, and now, of course, we have the pandemic. And so the interest in natural science is huge. That influences what we want to collect. In the 1930s, they were quite obsessed with John Galsworthy and John Galsworthy was quite expensive in the 1930s. No one cares about John Galsworthy these days. David Roberts is a good example of fashion, David Roberts was the English artist and traveler that went to the Middle East and importantly, was the first Westerner really allowed into the mosques and the holy sites in the Middle East to actually paint and draw them. He came back in 19th century Britain and he did the most amazing book, came out in six volumes, all these amazing illustrations and drawings of inside the mosques and the pyramids, et cetera. This book has been hugely popular, in particular the latter half of the 20th century where tourists for the first time are now going into Egypt, seeing these pyramids, going into Petra, going to the Holy Land, and they come back from this great holidays and then go, “oh, my God, there’s a book from the 19th century” and they’ll buy it. And this book, therefore, has gotten more and more collectible, more valuable.
Pom Harrington: The problem is now, for the last 20 years, no one’s really been going because of political problems. No one’s really traveling to Egypt anymore, not for the tourism. And for that reason, the book has not really changed in value in 20 years. And this is what I mean by, you know, this is fashion So the question, if you’re wanting to sort of buy something that might appreciate, your best pitch would be: what’s going to be popular in 20, 30 years time.
Peter Harper: Sure.
Pom Harrington: What is perhaps underrated now that you think will be important in 20, 30 years time?
Pom Harrington: Jane Austen! Jane Austen was collected within a decade or two of her time. First editions, were important in libraries right back in the 19th century and a first edition of Pride and Prejudice is still probably one of the most desired and sought after first editions that you could find. And the price has continued, has gone up and up. And actually, particularly in the last two or three years, it’s probably doubled. I mean, it’s extraordinary. Three years ago I was selling copies for 40 to 50 thousand pounds. Those same books are now selling for 80 thousand pounds.
Peter Harper: And when they do a reboot of the movie and this new generation that are..
Pom Harrington: No question, they influence it. And actually the best example of that is James Bond. Every time a James Bond movie comes out, a new batch of collectors for James Bond novels. Ian Fleming, there were 14 novels you can collect. They were published in 1953 – 1966. He did one per year. And actually, it’s a great series for beginners to learn the rules of rare book collecting because the rules of rarity: there’s only four thousand copies of Casino Royale, the first book, with the dust jacket it’s worth 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars. Without the jacket, it’s worth 3 or 4 thousand dollars. But you can learn those rules. The next book that came out had twice the print run, so you can probably half the price and again, condition comes into it. So you know they’re are great ways of learning how the collecting works.
Peter Harper: And one thing that I’m sure is important is, you know, an authentication process. And I imagine there is some degree of fraud in the business. It seems to be everywhere when you’ve got people willing to pay a lot of money for our limited things. How do people think about authenticating a product and accredited sellers and and the risk of getting something that may not be what they think it is.
Pom Harrington: That the good news for rare books is, for the most part, that they’re actually very few forgeries. I mean, deliberate forgery is actually very hard to do. With autographs, that’s quite a different matter, and I’ll come to that in a second. The best advice I can give anybody, use an accredited dealer. As it happens, I’m president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association in the U.K., there is the equivalent in America Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America is 450 members and actually we’re united by a global body called ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. Anybody part of that group have been voted in by their peers and they’re bound by regulations, morals and ethics of our trade. And that means everything is guaranteed as original and everybody has to have at least five years experience of trading in the book trade, et cetera. So buying from accredited dealers is quite important. I think if you buy on the Internet blindly – there is pop-up dealers and eBay or other ways of buying online, you do probably take a little bit more of a risk. Whereas you can take some comfort from buying from accredited dealer.
Pom Harrington: Autographs, is definitely more difficult. It’s a different matter, but I think just buying from an accredited dealer.
Peter Harper: And how do you go about verifying? You think about an old book where it’s signed, what’s the process like for verifying an older signature? Is it simply trying to find another example of the signature somewhere in the public?
Pom Harrington: In our case, I mean, we’ve been dealing 50 years or so and we’ve had a database for the last 20 years and we photographed everything that we’ve had in the last 10 years. So we actually have our own wonderful database of reference. And it’s funny, you know, I could look at Roald Dahl (because that’s what I collected) and I look at my screen and I can flick my records. I could have two hundred records of Roald Dahl autographs and believe me, the wrong one suddenly pops up, it jumps out. There’s a consistency of an autograph and it’s like a fingerprint. And, you know, when you understand the author and their autograph, then when it’s not them, it really does jump out.
Pom Harrington: We like to see actually fully inscribed. And that also is helpful and you tend to get that with maybe 19th century authors where they write to whoever with kind regards from the author and you get basically more writing to judge with. I mean, my favorite one is Charles Dickens. I mean, he had a wonderful flourish, and it’s a quite complicated flourish and therefore forgers don’t really try. It’s such an easy one to pick out. So experience is the main way. And actually, once you learn a little bit, you can self-govern yourself. I mean, some of it’s pretty straightforward. I mean, J.K. Rowling at the moment is the biggest problem in the marketplace. And so I’d say of all the ones that right now, beware of that one.
Peter Harper: Ok, that’s really good advice. And then: final question, what is your favorite book that you’ve ever come across and dealt with? And what’s the most valuable book that you’ve ever dealt with?
Pom Harrington: I think my favorite book – and I mentioned Charles Dickens – I actually first read about this book existing, just doing some research for something else. And I thought it was amazing: it was Charles Dickens Tales of Two Cities, but a presentation copy to George Eliot with admiration from the author, Charles Dickens. I just thought, my God, that’s an amazing book to have those two authors connected. And then, you know, some years later, it must be about 6 or 7 years ago, it was actually offered to me and I bought it and then, said how much. And I thought it was amazing. I actually took it home – I kept it for about 18 months. And then when we did an anniversary catalogue for Peter Harrington (we had a catalogue 100) and I actually put it in that catalog. We sold it immediately. But that’s probably my favorite ones. That’s such a big title from one author to another. That was pretty amazing. It was like 275 thousand pounds in the end. I pretty much have to have it back to that now.
Pom Harrington: And most valuable: we have done various things. Probably the most expensive thing we’ve handled was actually like a 13th century Islamic manuscript of Encyclopedia that was translated and was used as a reference for the first English to Arabic dictionary. And we had the actual manuscript of the dictionary to get with it.
Peter Harper: Oh, wow.
Pom Harrington: And we actually bought a for a client at auction it was like a million pounds at the time. Well, we have handled things pretty more valuable, but most things don’t go much over that it, would be pretty unusual. World record, however, is we once had a set of books from George Washington’s Library, which was signed by George Washington about the history American Revolution, a can’t disclose exactly what it was, but millions. And that’s probably the most valuable thing we’ve had.
Peter Harper: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for your time, this has been very informative and excited to get started collecting
Pom Harrington: Great. Thank you.
Peter Harper: Thanks, Pom. Bye bye.