Books and Manuscripts specialist Sven Becker advises on a richly rewarding and constantly evolving collectors’ market, which has seen the four most valuable scientific books ever sold all auctioned at Christie’s
Why collect scientific books?
Science and printing are deeply intertwined. Today scientists fly to international conferences and use the internet to share their insights, but until recently print was the fundamental medium through which scientists made their discoveries public. The development of nearly all that characterises modern life — including the internet, the planes that ship scholars and smartphones around the world, and the atomic energy that powers it all — is recorded in books.
To hold in your hands an example of a book that singlehandedly re-organized our idea of the solar system, such as Copernicus’s De Revoltionibus Orbium Coelestium, or of the work that introduced the idea that life-forms evolved over millions of years — Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — is a humbling experience. These and many other scientific books had a profound impact that went far beyond their fields — on the very course of human culture, philosophy, religion and more. That realisation — the feeling that, ‘I’m holding something that changed the world’ — is the most compelling, most beguiling reason to collect scientific books.
These revolutionary works are the Leonardos, Turners, Monets and Picassos of the book world: they are important and were produced by household names — Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc — which guarantees them broad appeal. Collecting these volumes often means buying at the top end, yet even at this level it’s possible to build a very important scientific library for less than the cost of one mid-range Turner.
What are the different ways to approach collecting?
Collectors of scientific books approach the task in many different ways. Some collect broadly across a specific time period, say the long century between Copernicus and Newton. Others might invent an alter ego, asking themselves before every purchase, ‘If I was a scientist in Amsterdam around 1650, would I own this book’?
Another strategy is to target scientific books that are undervalued, or that provide insights so prescient that their true impact has not yet been fully appreciated. There are opportunities in keeping up with advances in fields such as genetic engineering, information technology or alternative energy.
Some choose to collect books that relate to their professional field — anatomy for doctors, geology for oil prospectors, game theory for hedge fund managers — which brings a deeper understanding of one’s vocation, and a lot of pleasure along the way. Collecting in one field, or tracking the development of one particular idea, makes it possible to appreciate the cumulative aspect of human endeavour, that those we call geniuses owe a great debt to many that came before. ‘If I have seen further,’ said Newton paraphrasing a philosopher born six centuries earlier, ‘it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
Whether collecting broadly, deeply, or selectively, the key is always to collect with the heart. There is nothing wrong in collecting with financial return in mind: some collectors have done very well buying and selling scientific books this way. In general, book values appreciate steadily over time, slowly but surely, avoiding the fluctuations seen in other parts of the art market.
Are there shortcuts available to a new collector?
One of the most valuable shortcuts is to mine the experience of others. People in the field of scientific books are usually fiercely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and often willing to share information. Academics know interesting things, and reading around a subject will lead to exciting discoveries and new acquisitions. But making a decision in the context of a financial transaction brings laser focus to what really matters. Auction specialists, book dealers and seasoned collectors will have spent many years (and much capital) coming to grips with what is genuinely important and truly worth having. So pounce on every opportunity to talk to them.
What affects the value of scientific books?
Collecting books is a romantic pursuit: in many ways it’s about connecting with the time and place when an idea first came into the world and changed it. The book comes to represent that turning point, which is why collectors favour a first edition over a later edition that might be cheaper, and turn their backs on a digital version that might be free. With the big questions asked — ‘Is this book important?’ ‘Is it the right edition?’ — almost everything that affects a book’s value boils down to one factor: rarity.
Books are typically printed in editions of hundreds of copies, but over time many copies might be lost in circumstances that are sometimes dramatic (such as war or political upheaval) and sometimes prosaic (a scamp rips out pages to make paper planes, or the book is read so often that it falls apart). In general the more copies that survive, the easier a book can be found and the lower the price.
But rarity also has more subjective aspects, including the condition in which the book is found, and whether a particular copy has an interesting history. When they come off the press all the copies of a book are basically identical, but over time they weather differently, and they sometimes acquire unique characteristics.
In earlier times buying a new book usually meant buying only the printed sheets, which the buyer would then have bound according to their taste and budget. In these instances you definitely need to judge a book by its cover: some bindings are so refined that they are works of art in their own right, although they are also rare, with prices to match.
Books in superior condition command higher prices because they too are comparatively rarer; but also because it’s easier to appreciate the typography, design and intent without niggling flaws — it’s easier to be transported to that time and place.
How important is provenance?
If someone celebrated has owned the book, or if a book was once in the library of another scientist who used it to derive fresh insights, it can be transformed into a unique object judged on its own terms. The 16th-century copy of De humani corporis fabrica presented by the great anatomist Vesalius to his patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is a striking example.
What are experienced collectors looking for?
In today’s digital world, the definition of rarity has changed. Rare books were among the first collectibles traded online, and since those early days most books have become easier than ever to find. As a result the value of many fairly mundane books has gone down considerably, but the value of interesting ones has gone up tremendously.
When confronted with multiple copies of the same book, savvy collectors are increasingly looking for something that distinguishes one copy from all the others. This can be an inscription from the author; a bookplate recording that a copy once belonged to a notable collector or an esteemed contemporary; an unusually attractive binding on a book that is usually found in plain covers; or condition that is so fine that the copy is now in a league of its own. Whatever form it takes, that uniqueness is now an absolute requirement for most serious collectors.
Sometimes a book ticks all of those boxes, which has a major impact on price. Newton’s Principia, for example, is a book normally found in a functional brown leather binding, and usually with some condition problems because it was studied so closely; average copies typically sell for about $200,000. The remarkable copy presented by Newton to his patron King James II, however, bound in a gleaming red goatskin binding, sold for more than $2,000,000.
This focus on the unique has turned a spotlight on to connoisseurship, and made book-collecting much more interesting. Not all books yield their charms as easily as that spectacular Newton, and there is a real thrill in being able to decipher an ownership mark, or identify a relationship that was missed by others. The collection of scientific books offers so many opportunities for such discoveries, making it especially rewarding, combining the pleasures of detective work with the thrill of the hunt.