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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Coveted rarities

As regular blog readers know, I have a not-so-secret hankering for Jane Austen first editions, along with nothing like enough money to turn said hankering into actual possession of same.

So earlier this summer, I was interested to read that, in the past decade, and especially since COVID, the rare-book market—and, specifically, the market in rare Jane Austen books—has taken a turn for the pricey and public. “Although still far more modest in size compared to visual arts . . . the rare books market is having a moment,” a story in the New York Post claims.

Sales that were once conducted privately, with dealers quietly connecting well-heeled buyers and sellers, are now often transacted at public auction, a trend accelerated by the COVID-enforced move to digital interactions, the story says. The new prevalence of auction buying offers both greater transparency in pricing, which can benefit buyers, and the opportunity for owners of the most coveted items to make a killing.

The story mentions a few categories of especially valuable books—religious texts, intellectually or artistically seminal works—and notes that one Chicago auctioneer “is particularly passionate about books by Austen–and their potential to increase in value” because of the relatively small number of copies originally printed.

Although the Post story doesn’t spell it out, I’d also speculate that the market for Austen’s books is benefiting from two other facts about rare-book collecting highlighted in the story: Contemporary pop-culture developments, like the release of new movie adaptations, can increase interest in old books; and “buyers like to collect the types of books that they grew up with,” as one London book dealer says.

With younger tech-millionaire collectors entering the market, that means new demand for, say, first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And for a generation that grew up during the Jane Austen pop-culture renaissance of the past twenty-eight years (wet-shirt Darcy! Clueless couture! Fire Island and Netflix Persuasion!), that might also translate into new demand for Austen firsts.

What all this means for prices is apparent in every story (see, for instance, here and here) about Austen first editions selling at auction for far more than anticipated. And there’s no end to this trend in sight.

In other words, absent a lottery win, I’m never going to get my hands on one of those Austen first editions for which I not-so-secretly hanker.

Oh, well. Life is suffering.


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