Here’s a little known fact: One of the most valuable books ever sold was a garden book. It was actually a set of books, the 16-volume Les Liliacees written by Pierre-Joseph Redoute and once owned by the Empress Josephine, which sold for $5 million in 1985 to an art dealer. The botanical masterpiece, published between 1802 and 1816, is said to contain dozens of watercolors of flowers on vellum. Even more valuable than that, according to the American Book Exchange (ABE), was an original and very rare complete copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, published in parts beginning in 1827, which sold to another art dealer for $11.5 million in 2010.
After several years of selling antique and rare books – many of which I now wish I still owned – I only recently started to focus on garden books as a collection of my own. I now have about 35 to 40, and like any collection, it keeps growing, and morphing. And, like any collection, I’m sure I will eventually have to edit it, and define it, by parameters like subject and date.
My collection now includes prized garden encyclopedias from the early 20th century, 70’s era “back to the land” bibles on composting and growing herbs, nature writing collections, garden crafts and even some school textbooks. Yes, there’s a wide range. And some of the books are pretty shabby, missing pages or a spine or a front fly paper, but that’s how a collection begins.
Everything I know about rare and valuable books I learned working for an antique book dealer in Maine one summer. A one-time book seller in Times Square, B. taught me that certain things make a book valuable, and most of that information can be found right on the title and copyright page. First and foremost, book collectors look for first editions from prominent publishing companies. Usually if the copyright page indicates just one publishing date, it is a first edition. Sometimes, there is a notation that it is a second or third printing, which would indicate it is not a true first edition. Also, sometimes there is an “A” or other letter that indicates a first printing or limited edition – even more rare.
Once you’ve established a first edition, there are certain quality aspects that can detract from the book’s worth: missing pages or end papers, a missing dust jacket, a broken spine, damaged boards, folded pages, foxing (age related yellowing or browning on pages), and writing and/or the addition of a bookplate. A pristine, original, first copy is what you’re striving for as a collector.
On the contrary, certain elements can enhance a garden book’s value, particularly if it is a rare one. Colored plates and/or illustrations, the author’s signature (particularly if the author is famous) or inscription and a leather binding with fancy end papers can all make the garden book worth more.
I am not anywhere near ready to fine tune my collection, and, to be honest, I just collect books whose subject matter interests me. I love to read about how gardening tasks were carried out in the old days, and find it amusing when I see, for example, a remedy for insects from the mid century that includes DDT or pictures of hippies in the 70’s drying herbs in their kitchens. Sure, there are some good ones that got away; I would love to have that beekeeping reference from the 1880’s that I had once – what gorgeous illustrations! – or the greenhouse instruction manual. But maybe I’ll come across even better copies of those books as I continue collecting.
Maybe I will also one day find that long lost copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America. How cool would that be, and how would I ever spend $11 million?