Are Rare Book Dealers "Collectors in Disguise"?
By Paul Feain for the China Daily on the Occasion of the 4th Hong Kong Antiquarian Book Fair, December 3-5, 2010
From December 3-5, 2010, rare book dealers from Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States will showcase rare and beautiful books and prints at the 4th Hong Kong Antiquarian Book Fair, among them booksellers from Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The fair, which took place for the first time in 2007, is organized by Paul Feain of Cornstalk Bookshop in Sydney (Australia), Mitsuo Nitta of Yushodo in Tokyo (Japan), and Christopher Li of Swindons Books in Hong Kong. In an interview for the China Daily Paul Feain, antiquarian bookseller for 30 years and a long-time ILAB Committee member, talks about the importance of printed books in the history of mankind, the great works of 20th century literature, art, politics and philosophy, about the passion of book collecting and Hong Kong as an attractive market place for rare books and manuscripts, arts and antiques. His credo:
A good dealer is a collector in disguise.
Collect with passion in a field that you are passionate about.
Collect books that you want to read. You will soon become an expert, and if you collect like this for a number of years you may even become THE expert.
I am a dealer in antiquarian books which is different to being a collector. But to be a good dealer you probably are a collector in disguise. I have been an antiquarian bookseller since 1980, so 30 years in the trade. Before this I was a very undisciplined collector and I must say that now I am a rather undisciplined dealer in that I buy and sell books on all sorts of subjects. And the great advantage of being a dealer is that over the years I have got to handle a very large number of books far more than if I had stayed a collector. Now all of these books have been purchased by me and I have been the owner of them – some for a very short time and others for much, much longer.
The handling of these books has given me great pleasure. I have collated them, researched them and thought about them, especially about their place in the canon of human knowledge. I do specialise in a few different subjects. I love very old medical books and have always a number of them from the 16th through to the 19th century. And then something entirely different – I love 20th century crime books in dust wrappers and I carry a large stock of Australian crime fiction books. I also carry a large stock of anthropological books on the Australian Aboriginal. I cannot resist an interesting and important old book. So I end up with lovely old books on clock making, tobacco growing, Chinese art, first editions of George Orwell and many other subjects.
The strict definition of an antiquarian book is that it is more than 100 years old, but we deal with all books, pamphlets, autographs and manuscripts that are important to mankind. The works of the great 20th century thinkers, politicians, novelists and artists (among others) are milestones in the recent history of our culture. So most of our material is more than 100 years old, although there are many 20th century items which are as important to the rare bookseller as the real old books.
The best advice I can give if you wish to collect antiquarian books is to collect with passion in a field that you are passionate about. Collect in a subject that interests you greatly. Collect books that you want to read. You will soon become an expert and if you collect like this for a number of years you may even become THE expert. Catalogue the collection as you go and read anything on collecting in your field and also write about it, even if you are only writing for a very small audience.
Antiquarian books are available from many places. There are lots of sites on the internet (I recommend www.ilab.org), there are still numerous bookshops throughout the world and here in Hong Kong are three wonderful shops which cater for different collectors - Picture This, Lok Man Rare Books and Indosiam Rare Books. Get yourself on booksellers mailing lists and try and get close to a couple of knowledgeable booksellers. Go to book fairs, and join book collectors societies, and if you cannot find one in your country, start one.
There are many factors which can make a book valuable. For example, its importance in the canon of human discovery: first editions of the works of Karl Marx, Copernicus, early editions of Confucius or Einstein, early printings of the Bible and in the East early printings of religious and philosophical works. There are great works of travel and geographic discovery: by Marco Polo, Captain Cook and many other explorers, adventurers and scientists. Rarity of an important work will make it more valuable. And everyone loves a mint copy of an old book. A collectible old book in fine condition can be worth many times more than the same book in poor condition. Often the first book by an author who becomes famous is worth far more than later and more important books.
The market for antiquarian books has increased steadily over the years and even the current world financial crisis has not suppressed the eagerness of buyers for important books.
The interest in old books in Hong Kong, China and the Asian region is increasing. The spread of education, the increase in the standard of living and the growing affluence of the region is making rare books on China and other subjects more sought after. The new buyers are in some cases the beneficiaries of the increasing wealth. Besides this, the Chinese have always been wonderful collectors of all sorts of desirable objects.
The article which is based on this interview was published in the China Daily, November 28, 2010. The interview is presented here by permission of Paul Feain. Pictures are taken from the Cornstalk Blog. Thank you very much.
>>> Hong Kong Antiquarian Book Fair
>>> China Daily
>>> Cornstalk Bookshop (Blog)