There are no clear definitions that distinguish “rare books” from “old books” or “antiquarian books”. The standard definition of an antiquarian book is a book over 100 years old, traditionally antiquarian books are those printed before 1800. But through usage the meaning has changed and rare books can now include 20th century books. It must be remembered that there are 19th and 20th century books that are much more difficult to find than a good number of 16th and 17th century books. 'Old' does not necessarily mean “rare”, 'rare' does not necessarily mean “old”. In general I would say that any book that is rare and collectable and can no longer be obtained from the publisher, is a rare or antiquarian book, but a rare or antiquarian book is not necessarily old!
Antiquarian booksellers deal in almost every conceivable subject, some have specialized in one subject, or certain subjects, others are generalists. There are dealers in Modern First Editions (Harry Potter, Ian Fleming/James Bond, the great modern authors, especially an important market in the US and the UK), but also dealers who have specialized in early Humanism, or Renaissance, in a broad subject such as History of Ideas, in Natural History, in Science or Medicine, in Travel and Discovery, Philosophy, and in incunabula. There are people who deal in atlases, in maps, in prints, in children's books: as I said, every subject you can think of. If you visit the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (www.ILAB.org) and do an advanced search to “Find Rare Booksellers” you’ll find there a drop-down menu with specialties: you’ll be amazed to see how many subjects are covered.
To each his own. People collect for a great number of reasons: they collect within their hobby or area of interest, they collect books relating to their business, they are fascinated by a period, or a country, or an author, or a subject. There are more reasons to collect than I can list here. There is a tendency to consider those books which have shaped the history of mankind as the most important or desirable books (Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, William Harvey, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Baruch de Spinoza etc. etc.), but one can as well build a library documenting the history, development and evolution of economic thought, one can collect books on mushrooms, one can collect books on mathematics, classical authors such as Dante or Goethe or Shelley, one can collect illustrated books, or only books illustrated by one particular artist. One can collect a particular publisher, one can collect bindings, journals, broadsides, social sciences, sports and games, manuscripts: there is no end to what one can collect.
The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers does not encourage collecting books for investment purposes. We can tell what the price of a book was in the past, how that price has developed, we can tell what it will cost now to own a copy, but we cannot predict what its future price will be. Our advice is always: buy what you like, what pleases you, what interests you, what fits within your areas of collecting or interest, buy the best copy available (and affordable to you) at the moment you want to buy the book. The reason for collecting is love and interest in the subject, the author, the period, what the book represents, the love and desire to own the original or best edition of a particular book. Books may have an added value through an important dedication or provenance, or because of an exceptional binding, or because it has the signature of an important previous owner. But while one man may think a 1.000 US$ for a particular book is very expensive, the collector who has been looking for that same book for a long time may feel the 1.000 US$ is a bargain, if it fills an important gap in his library or collection. If, and I say if, it is an investment, than it is a long-term investment, a savings account, and you use money that you’re sure you won’t be needing for a long, long time, and nobody guarantees you anything. If you’re looking for a quick return on investment, forget it. The bottom-line is: don’t buy them as an investment: it is the wrong angle to look at books. Buy them because you love books, you love a subject, a historical figure, a period. Built a collection and become the expert on the subject.
I once sold a collection for a private collector on peace: it contained books on war and peace, peace treaties between nations from the 16th through the 19th century, philosophical treaties on peace from the ancients up to Immanuel Kant, law and natural law on peace, the economics of peace, every aspect imaginable of peace was present: it was a fabulous and unbelievable collection and the owner knew everything there was to know about the subject. If you collect along these lines it is an investment: an investment in pleasure and delight, in knowledge, in culture, in discoveries. You do not have to worry about its increase in value (or lack of increase of value), instead you enjoy the growth of your collection, your increasing knowledge about the subject and the books, you enjoy the hunt in search of books still lacking in your collection, you enjoy the surprise of meeting authors you’ve never heard of but who appear to be important and relevant for your collection, the surprise of meeting authors you already know, but of whom you did not know that they had also published on your subject. It is the voyage that will give you incomparable pleasure, not the arrival at the destination. If you must invest, invest in yourself: enrich yourself: not your bank account.
As said above, ILAB does not recommend buying books as a financial investment. One buys a book because one loves to own, one loves to collect, one loves to possess the original book as someone in the 17th or 18th century possessed and read and studied it, because it is, to that collector, a significant book or text. What I can say is that books are much, much cheaper than paintings. One has to be very rich to collect a certain period in paintings, and the more so if one wants to own the best paintings by the best artists. But one does not have to be particularly rich to built a significant and important library. Expertise, knowledge, love, and interest are more important here than the size or content of your purse!
I would refer to my previous answers: there may be books of which I think that they will fetch higher prices in the future, but it is just my personal opinion and others may dispute that. There are also trends and fashions and an essential part of trends and fashions is: they change and they affect prices. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe in the late 1980s, the market for the original works in socialism and radicalism collapsed, in recent years the market for Russian books, especially the great Russian authors and poets, has become a growing market.
No: if you decide to invest in books, it is your own decision, just as you decide which stocks and shares you want to own. But if you decide to spent money on books and built a collection: collect what is of interest to you, what your heart tells you, what you like, what you love, what gives you pleasure and satisfaction, what is meaningful or significant to you. What is important is that you built good relations with an ILAB dealer or a couple of ILAB dealers and let yourself be guided by their knowledge and expertise: they can advice you about the condition of a book, they can tell you whether or not the book has been restored, whether or not this is a good copy, they can tell you the price history of the book, they can tell you how scarce it is. These and many other aspects can help you reach a decision as to whether or not to purchase a book. In addition, dealers can help you to find a book you are looking for and take into consideration your needs, your requirements, and your purse. He cannot tell you what the book will be worth in 10 years. But if the price of the book has not increased, you will still own a book that is meaningful to you, and not a useless share certificate.
Start building a collection around the subject or author or period. Continue to develop knowledge about your subject. Time will teach you and you will discover what you want to have and what you consider of less interest for your collection. Buy the best copy you can afford: you will always regret buying a bad copy, you will never forget what you paid for it and the book will always be irritating. Buy the best copy you can afford and you will forget what you paid for it but always look at the copy with pleasure. Discuss your collection and where you want to go with your collection with the dealers you trust and whose opinion you value. Many collectors have one or a couple of dealers who serve as their advisors and with whom they discuss a possible purchase. And of course, these dealers will be alert on any material they find which may be of interest to you and your collection.
Books are like humans. They like comfortable conditions and they like company. Keep them in an equitable temperature and humidity and away from direct sunlight and any extreme changes of condition. A shelf of books, side by side, helps to maintain these conditions. A book on its own is an orphan with all of the associated problems. Unless you are the author or someone famous, don’t write in the book. Don’t change it in any way, for example by cutting its price off the cover. Don’t fold over the pages to mark where you are up to in reading it. Indeed there are some who would say “don’t read it!”
There is a finite supply of “old” or “antiquarian” or “rare” books: they are no longer being made, produced, and printed. There is a growing world population, there are new emerging countries with a better educated population and their population has become, or is becoming, more affluent, and they are, or will soon be, new markets for antiquarian books. There will always be people who like to own books, who like to collect books that are important to them. They are to be found in the Netherlands, in France, England, America, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Australia, everywhere around the globe. And books are everywhere around the globe, and more important: books can be moved easily to any place on the planet nowadays! The world market for antiquarian books looks healthy and it still has a long history before it!
(For the Hong Kong Economic Times)