Hard Times? Not If You Can Collect Works by Charles Dickens

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Hard Times? Not If You Can Collect Works by Charles Dickens


Byline: Toby Walne

CHARLES Dickens is arguably the nation's greatest novelist - as well as the most collectable. A signed copy of A Tale Of Two Cities was last month put up for sale for a record-breaking PS275,000. The previous top price paid for the Victorian author's work was $290,000 (PS174,000) for a pre-publication copy of A Christmas Carol in 2009.

The signed copy of A Tale Of Two Cities is special as it is inscribed to fellow writer George Eliot - real name Mary Ann Evans. But Brian Lake, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, says the key appeal of Dickens is that there is a wide range of books and ephemera to suit all pockets.

Lake, who is also a partner at Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers opposite the British Museum in Central London, says: 'Dickens prided himself on being a man of the people and insisted his publishers offered his books cheaply so they could be widely read. His popularity meant print runs tended to be high and this means there are now large numbers of collectable editions available. No matter what your budget, there is something you can afford.'

According to Bristol-based Paul Fraser Collectibles, the price of a first edition A Christmas Carol has risen on average by 8.7 per cent a year over the past decade. Following the bicentenary of Dickens's birth two years ago the market for his books remains strong.

Lake says: 'The first step in searching for an affordable Dickens collectable edition is to consult a reputable bookseller. The internet can provide lots of invaluable information but, rather than using it to buy, browse it to find a suitable specialist bookshop to visit. There is no substitute for the thrill of touching a book and talking face to face with an expert about what to buy.' Before publishing in book form, Dickens usually sold his novels in monthly magazine instalments that typically ran to 20 parts.

Together a top condition set of instalments - such as Nicholas Nickleby published between 1838 and 1839 - can sell for up to PS5,000. The magazines were incredibly successful at the time with 100,000 copies sometimes published a month.

After completing the collection Victorians would bind them into a single volume. As these are relatively common, you can pick up good condition complete copies in book form for about PS500.

In contrast, a genuine 1839 clothbound first edition of Nicholas Nickleby can fetch PS4,000 - and as much as PS120,000 if it has been inscribed by Dickens.

An 1861 first edition of Great Expectations - limited to 500 copies in three volumes - can set you back PS25,000 or even more if in top grade 'fine' condition. A volume of Great Expectations parts first published in the periodical All The Year Round - which Dickens edited - can be found for just PS500.

LAKE says: 'If you cannot afford a first edition you should consider an early "stereotype" reprint. This might cost you about PS100 or you could search for a well looked after later Victorian edition. This can be a better option than buying an early edition in poor condition, which is not going to be sought after by collectors.'

A stereotype - from which the modern term originates - was cheaper for publishers making large print runs as they used hard-wearing metal plates instead of more labour intensive typesetting.

Lake warns that the quality of some early books suffered because cheap paper was often used, with earliest copies of books such as The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby particularly suffering from 'foxing' - brown, age-related spots. …

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