Collecting Rare Books

Collecting is a passion, a calling, an art. All collectors feel a strong connection with the object of their pursuit, but book collectors seem to have an especially emotional attachment. Is it that books are not just things? Is a collectible book more than just a wonderfully tactile object of age and craftsmanship, something lovely to feel and smell and to see and read… and maybe something more?

Melville First Editions of “Typee” and “Omoo”.

Perhaps it is a matter of imagination. A book is not just a cover and pages: it comprises more than the prose and verse contained, the ideas expressed, the capture of the time and place when written. Perhaps the collector of rare and beautiful books is also collecting an innate part of themselves. Perhaps the collector is chasing their own dreams.

What drives a book collector? What does one look for when choosing a volume and how does one go about building a collection? Well first and foremost all serious collectors are quick to realize that there is a big difference between collecting and accumulating. Libraries are encompassing, while collections are specialized. Collectors tend to focus their attention on a particular type of book.

Choice collection of rare and first edition Nantucket books.

There are nearly as many strategies for collecting as there are collectors. Some people pursue all titles by a particular author. Some may search for different editions of one particular title (for example I have an embarrassing number of early editions of Treasure Island). People may limit their attention to only a specific genre, subject, time period or locale. Some are exclusively interested in a specific publisher or illustrator. Or a specific binding. Or social-historical significance. Or Commercial success. Or obscurity. Or first novels by later acclaimed writers. Or the sole novels by authors who never wrote another (anyone for a Mockingbird?). The possibilities are seemingly endless. The most bizarre collection I ever heard of comprised first editions of first novels written by authors who later took their own lives.

Whatever their pursuit all collectors of course prize first editions, and most also want first printings… but there are exceptions. A second, or even later, edition is usually acceptable in the case of a very early or particularly rare and valuable book. Sometimes a later edition may even be preferable over a first.

Early leather-bound edition of “The Complete Angler ” by Izaak Walton

All books are not printed equally; some publishers do a particularly fine job. A case in point is The Complete Angler written by Izaak Walton and first published in 1653. Most fans of this seminal work search for the 1824 publication by Major, even though it is the twenty-something edition. The tooled and gilded leather binding, excellent illustrations and fine printing have made it a lasting favorite.

Condition is extremely important. We all want our treasures in as mint condition as possible, or as is practical. An early field book for example, or a navigational pilot, is expected to show wear.

19th Century Handwritten Sailor’s Logbook.

Hand-written ship’s logbooks are often missing pages yet remain very desirable. There are books which collectors are thrilled to have even just one page. At the other extreme lie modern first editions, where everything must be present and perfect, and the dust jacket may be more valuable than the book itself.

An author’s signature of course adds excitement, class, mystique and often value. An inscription however is not always viewed favorably by posterity. A witty turn-of-phrase or a sincerely personal sentiment by the author can be interesting, while a generic mass-book-signing inscription (For Oscar with regard…”) may actually demean the prize and lesson its value. Price clippings hurt to some extent. An owner’s bookplate or discrete signature is usually tolerated, but a library’s heavy markings are a bummer indeed.

The invasion of the internet has affected literature in many ways. We no longer search for and purchase books in the same way as just a decade ago, and in many cases no longer even read them in the same way of old. The internet has impacted the rare book trade tremendously, as in fact it has the antiques trade as a whole. But probably not in the way you think.

The internet has given the individual access to much more information, often allowing them to bypass the local dealer. Having the world at your fingertips should boost supply out of sight, dropping values through the floor. But the same dynamic now gives dealers access to collectors around the world which fiercely increases demand, which should drive prices through the roof. Which is it?

Corrected by the internet, items that in truth were quite common and readily available, that were not really valuable in the first place, have justifiably come down in price. Conversely, items that are truly rare, special, desirable and in fine condition have risen greatly in price. Brick and mortar book shops may be at a disadvantage in terms of mass market, but hold a decided advantage in terms of the collector being able to judge that supremely important condition. There are actually a substantially greater number of rare book dealers now than just ten years ago, and the professional associations report healthy sales indeed.

Many people love to read and appreciate books for what they contain and the knowledge or enjoyment they impart. But some people have a further aesthetic appreciation of everything about the book itself: not just its

First Edition of “Miriam Coffin, or, The Whale Fishermen” in Two Volumes. The first novel about Nantucket.

contents but also its romance, its physical craftsmanship and beauty, its place in the universe of literature. Awareness of appreciating value (or not) certainly plays a role, in some cases a commanding one, but most book collectors are driven more by their passion for the art and their own imagination. Their collection is an extension of their curiosity and intellectual experiences. A collector’s life is enriched not just by reading the book, but also by enjoying it’s presence on their shelf.


Oh! Oh! –nologie! The Antiques of The Noble Grape.

Wine related antiques have become especially popular in recent years. They appeal not only to people who have become increasingly knowledgeable and passionate about wines, but also to such diverse tastes as those inclined towards elegant dining room accessories, specialized tools, a country feel or a sophisticated  international flair in art and decor.

15th or 16th Century Italian School Oil on Canvas Bacchanalian Portrait.

Visitors to our shop may be looking for just a few wine accent pieces for their home, or another prize to add to their growing collection, or quite often just one special article to give as a house-warming or thank-you gift. Wine related antiques pair very well indeed with a variety of tastes and purposes, and there are examples to fit every budget.

The most popular wine collectible is corkscrews. The earliest wine bottles date from the early 17th Century, sealed with wooden pegs or pottery balls. Corks first appeared in Spain during the middle of the 18th Century and quickly became ubiquitous. Corkscrews appeared immediately of course, and the first patent for a specialized corkscrew was granted in England to Reverend Samuel Henshall in 1795. The race was on and we find an explosion of clever designs and styles throughout the 19th Century (and showing no signs of abating even today).

Collection of Antique Corkscrews (with a Henshall-type second from left).

We always have some Henshall-type antique corkscrews on hand at the Antiques Depot, especially ones with turned bone handles. Early corkscrews from the 18th Century are quite scarce but we usually manage to have some in our collection. Varying mechanisms invented during the 19th Century include straight pulls, rack and pinions, double-action screws, self-pulling, lever, concertina and more. Styles range from small portable pocket corkscrews, sturdy cellarmans, mechanical, cages, barrels, multi-tool and waiter’s friends, souvenirs, figurals and novelties. All are enticing to the collector, the more unusual or rare the better. Any with identifying marks of the maker or sponsor are prized, and of course a premium is placed on those in fine original condition in good working order.

Collectors also seek other antiques related to the consumption and appreciation of wine. Silver or plated coasters for bottles, especially those with turned hardwood bases, are both attractive and functional: those claret drips clean so much easier off mahogany than your linen tablecloth. Tasting tables, cellarettes and wine coolers are specialized furniture forms from the 18th and 19th Centuries that remain attractive, multifunctional and practical in the modern home. Table-top bottle holders and coolers (ice buckets) remain extremely usable, and so much more elegant and individually distinctive than modern mass-produced examples.

19th Century Federal Mahogany Corner Stand with a variety of Wine related antiques.

Early decanters, neck labels of silver or porcelain, decanting funnels and toddy ladles are all eagerly sought and collected. Tastevins, those petite  demi-cups used by sommeliers for tasting or sampling wine, are very decorative and were made in an endless variety, offering the collector nearly as much to choose from as with corkscrews. Vintage wine glasses themselves are avidly sought and can be quite expensive. Earlier glasses from the 18th and 19th Centuries can be gorgeous in shape and texture, but are generally too small for the modern taste.

There are also many fascinating articles associated with the production of wine as well. The actual hand tools used in viniculture make for an unusual and brilliant looking collection displayed in a cluster on a wall. The dimensional forms of secateurs, cisailles, ciseaux and couteau pour la greffe grab the attention and imagination and make quite a statement. And there is nothing like rich topsoil, vine sap, grape juice and sunshine to build an amazing patina!

Early hand blown onion-shaped and square case bottles from the 17th and 18th Centuries are very attractive and are often used for making lamps. The more modern cylindrical binning bottles (first appearing in the second half of the 18th Century) are difficult to find with their identifying labels still intact. Such vintage wine bottles from the late 19th or early 20th Centuries are very desirable decorative accents that can be surprisingly valuable. Other sought-after accoutrements include measures, corking devices and specialized instruments, such as hydrometers, for testing wines and measuring volumes and barrels.

Artists have enjoyed a long love affair with the culture and vision of wine. A collector with perseverance and luck will find appealing still life or genre paintings focused on wine. Given the warm association of wine with meals or celebrations shared with family or friends, or quiet emotions shared with a lover, it is surprising that artists don’t spend more time musing on wine. In addition to paintings, one may also find original vintage wine advertising posters or the occasional cask label, all very intriguing, beguiling and beautiful.

Here’s to lifting a glass to a truly fascinating specialty within the world of antiques. Salut!

Coming Soon From a Waterfront Near You.

Welcome to the first Nantucket Antiques Depot Blog on antiques and antiquing. We have been selling antiques for over twenty years in a shop overlooking Nantucket Harbor. we carry 17th, 18th and 19th Century furniture, art and decorative accessories, with an emphasis on Marine Antiques, Decoys and the China Trade. Our taste and interests reflect New England history and culture, and at the same time are quite wide and eclectic. There truly is something for everyone at the Antiques Depot.

We’ve been a bit slow in starting the blog (sorry about that!), but we’ve been on the run updating our website, social media (yes, we are actually on Facebook and Twitter), and lining up our advertising for the year. Spring is always a hectic time of year on Nantucket. We have scrubbed and shined the shop from stem to stern, and have been full out setting up a fresh display with all the great new finds we lucked upon over the winter. It might seem easy, but we have to research, identify and authenticate, determine a fair value and properly present each and every piece before it goes out on display. We want our clients to be confident, so we are adamant about being confident ourselves about every piece before we endorse it with our name. 

Spring is also usually the busiest time of year for personal property appraisals. It must have something to do with the Ides of March… the old tax time must remind people to finally get around to donating that object to their favorite museum, or upgrading their insurance, or settling that inheritance. This year has been even crazier because I’ve had to run off island a lot. There has been an increasing plea for appraisals from clients on the mainland. I have also been attending courses at RISD in order to keep up to date with the latest standards and legal requirements for appraisals. The American Society of Appraisers insists all its members continue their education to always stay up to snuff. Wouldn’t you want Your appraiser to be at the top of his game?

We have also been very busy teaching a course on The World of Antiques and Antiquing for the Nantucket Community Schools Adult Education program. We started with an introduction to gaining a perspective on antiques versus vintage, periods and styles, market levels, and what are some of the factors that affect value. We followed up with a two week hair-raising chase through Buyer Beware: Auctions, eBay and More! Not at all for the faint of heart. Tonight we’ll calm things down a bit with Changing Times and Temperaments: The Antiques Market Today and Hints of the Future. Its been a lot more time consuming that we originally thought, but the course has been fun and very rewarding (I hope my students agree).

In the blogs ahead we’ll explore a variety of antiques and related topics. We’ll look at the history behind many fascinating objects and try to get a handle on their connoisseurship. We’ll warn you of some of the perils and pitfalls of the antiques business, as well as sharing some of the delights. We will observe and comment on noteworthy events throughout the world of antiques. We’ll on occasion also discuss some important appraisal concerns. For the most part we will be just ruminating and reminiscing about the world of antiques, as we see it from here on the waterfront in Nantucket.