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July 22 2011

Photobooks – affordable collectibles that are soaring in value

Rare editions now sell for tens of thousands, but collectors on a limited budget can invest in emerging photographers

At first glance they may look like overpriced coffee-table books, but photobooks are highly collectible works of art. In recent years, a boom in the market has seen prices skyrocket. At a dedicated auction at Christie's in London last year, signed early editions of influential photobooks such as Robert Frank's The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment sold for £43,250 and £13,750 respectively.

The sudden surge in prices is thought to have begun with the publication of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's lushly illustrated two-volume retrospective The Photobook: A History, in 2004. These books, along with Andrew Roth's 2001 work, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, attempted to reveal what Parr described as "the final frontier of the undiscovered". As a result, a canon of sorts was established and the values of the featured books soared.

According to Sven Becker of Christie's Books and Manuscripts, prices have risen so quickly in the last five years that values put on the more famous books have stalled. Higher prices will only be attained, he says, when the "books or copies are in perfect condition" or where they have "extraordinary things attached such as signatures and inscriptions".

Despite the scarcity of signed or inscribed books and the high plateau in prices on the seminal works, there is hope for the average collector with a modest budget. In fact, even if you're a complete novice, there is a good opportunity to combine learning about the art form with a sound piece of investing by collecting new editions.

Photobooks are expensive to produce and, while demand is too small to warrant long print runs or multiple reprints, it is large enough that the books remain desirable, soon become scarce and can eventually be very valuable. This means new editions costing between £20 and £60 can double or triple in price in as little as two to five years. In 10 or 20 years – and if the work of the photographer becomes particularly fashionable – the price may increase even more.

Jeff Ladd of the photobook blog 5B4, cites the example of John Gossage's book of gritty landscapes, The Pond. When the groundbreaking work was published in 1985, you could pick up a copy for about £20-£30, but it soon went out of print and became very scarce. Today it sells for £500-£600 via rare book trader Vincent Borrelli.

Similarly, photobooks by Bruce Davidson have become very valuable. Reprinted 2003 editions of his 1980s book Subway (see below) cost £40 on release but now sell for anywhere between £200 and £300.

If you want to pick up some books currently on the shelves that might follow this trend, William Eggleston's For Now (Twin Palms, 2010) and Before Color (Steidl, 2010) can still be found for around the £30-£40 mark; they are expected to double in value relatively quickly and perhaps even increase beyond that in years to come.

You need to look after anything you buy very carefully. Martin Amis of photobookstore.co.uk, which sells rare and limited-edition books, says books must be in perfect condition. "Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40% of the price," he says, "which is why you have to be careful with places like Amazon who don't always package books as well as they might."

Amis, a collector himself, recommends buying from stores that specialise, straight from the publisher or from dealers you know. Other online specialists include the excellent photo-eye.com, based in Santa Fe. If you prefer to buy from a physical bookshop and can get to London, Photobooks International in Bloomsbury is a good place to rummage for used editions.

But one of the great things about photobook collecting is discovering the work of emerging photographers whose early books may become sought after. A good place to look is among the current boom in self-published titles.

Self-publishing in photography has a fine pedigree. Perhaps the greatest example is Ed Ruscha's 1963 work Twentysix Gasoline Stations (see below). More recently, Ryan McGinley's self-published 2000 debut The Kids Are Alright sold for £3,528 at Swann Galleries in New York.

"You can't go wrong if you are paying £7-£10 for something you like," says Becker, who believes these self-published books are "guaranteed to be collectible in the future".

To help you navigate the bewildering array, look at websites that collate the best of self-publishing, such as theindependentphotobook.blogspot.com, indiephotobooklibrary.org and selfpublishbehappy.com. Also, many established photographers, such as Stephen Gill, sell through their own sites. His Book of Birds, £19, or Hackney Flowers, £28, are available through Gill's own imprint Nobody and are worth a look for their uncommon detail as well as their potential collectability.

Finally, to make the most of collecting you will need to stay in the know and – most importantly – get to know what you like. Luckily, there are some excellent resources at hand. As well as Ladd's 5B4, there are blogs such as Marc Feustel's eyecurious.com, Nathalie Belayche's foodforyoureyes and the Guardian's own photo blog by Sean O'Hagan, all of which cover in depth what's new, where to go and what to see. Add to this magazines such as the British Journal of Photography, Photoworks, and Foto8 and galleries such as the Photographers' Gallery in London and the Redeye network in the north-west and you will find many opportunities to learn.

Collecting photobooks is a wonderful way to discover more about photography and build a small alternative nest egg at the same time. The only downside is that you might incur the cost of installing a sturdy set of shelves.

Where to start

The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 and 2 by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger £49.95, Phaidon; £30.40, Amazon

Published in 2001 and 2004, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's retrospective of the history of photobooks has become hugely influential in the used photobook market. It's a good place to start learning and may even become a collectors' item itself.

New editions and reprints likely to go up

William Eggleston – Before Color £40, Steidl; £28, Amazon

Elegant edition of the eccentric American photographer's early work in black and white before he dazzled in colour. Small run and sure to be worth more than the cut-price £27.66 on Amazon in years to come, a good place to start and a unique introduction to the work of Eggleston.

Bruce Davidson – Subway £40, Aperture; £35, Amazon

Previous editions of Bruce Davidson's study of the New York subway system and its passengers have shot up in price. Gritty yet human, the highly anticipated Aperture Foundation reprint due in September is sure to fly off the shelves.

Ones to covet

Ed Ruscha – Twentysix Gasoline Stations £23,800, signed first edition, abebooks.co.uk

Regarded by some as the first "modern artist's book", pop artist Ruscha's self-published photobook consists of pictures of 26 gasoline stations taken on a trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. First editions in a run of 500 sold for $3.50 in 1962. At the time the minimalist imagery was shocking, but it is perhaps the price that raises eyebrows now – it can fetch between £6,000 and £12,000.

Alexey Brodovitch – Ballet £6,460, first edition, alibris.com

Legendary photobook by Harper's Bazaar designer Brodovitch whose backstage pictures of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, taken with limited equipment, became famous for their radical challenging of technique and powerful depiction of movement. If you can't afford the original, Errata Editions does a fantastic 2011 version for about £25.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


April 19 2010

Your hidden treasures

If a Superman comic can fetch $1.5m - as one did recently at an auction in the US - then how much could the toys, records and furniture in your house be worth? Emine Saner puts a price on some unlikely collectors' items

Comics

During the war, the only American comics that made it to the UK were brought by US sailors docking at Southampton, who would swap them for sweets and cigarettes. Sadly, that means the chances of finding a comic in your attic to rival the 1938 issue of Action Comics No 1 (the first Superman cartoon), which sold recently for a record-breaking $1.5m, is remote. Nonetheless, says comic expert and auctioneer Malcolm Phillips: "Any British comics from the war years are very collectable. There would be a lot of propaganda in them aimed at children, which was very interesting. You'd get a picture of Hitler hanging by a rope, dead."

Phillips is well placed to judge. In 2004, he sold a copy of the first Dandy from 1937 for £20,350. "What was rare about it was it came with its original free gift – a whistle," says Phillips.

A Beano from the early 40s could go for up to £40, and special issues can be double or treble that. In a pile of 50s comics, Malcolm always looks for issue 452 – the comic in which Dennis the Menace makes his first appearance.

It isn't just comics either. Phillips recently auctioned an almost complete year of Melody Makers from 1963, which includes its first Beatles cover."We are inundated with people wanting to sell stuff, but we turn a lot of it away," he says. Most comics from the 70s onwards, in good condition, are still only worth a few pounds.

Toys

"There is a massive market for 20th-century toys," says antiques expert and TV presenter Jonty Hearnden. Indeed, last month a collection of toy cars fetched £100,000 at auction. Anyone who has ever watched an antiques show will know that collectors prize mint condition, but even if you weren't one of those odd children who never took their robots or Batman models out of their original boxes, there is a chance your old toys could still be worth something.

"I was at a car boot sale last year and there were all these old Sindy dolls," says collectables expert Tracey Martin. "They were in terrible condition – their hair had been chopped off, some were missing feet – but I bought them for £1 each because I liked their outfits." Then she put them on eBay and they all went for £70-80 each. "It turned out they were rare, which goes to show that even something in awful condition can be worth a fair bit if it's rare enough."

The Green Lady picture

This otherworldly, or sickly, depending on your taste, face of a young Chinese woman gazed down from the walls of sitting rooms across the world in the 60s and 70s, but it was particularly popular in Britain. "You could buy prints of this picture very cheaply in Boots," says Martin, "and they're still in people's homes today." This print, by painter Vladimir Tretchikoff, one of the most famous ever made, still makes snobbish art critics recoil, but thanks to the ongoing trend for kitsch, says Martin, it now sells for around £100.

Record collections

Whenever anyone finds out what Ian Shirley does – he's the editor of the Rare Record Price Guide – they always want to know how much their own collections are worth. "Obviously, it depends on what they have. They could have 200 records worth £10,000, or 2,000 records worth much less." The best way to find out is to get a copy of the price guide, or do a search on an internet auction site to see how much records have sold for. There are two things that determine value: scarcity, and mint condition (this usually means never played, even better if it has never been taken out of its sleeve). Lots of people will have Beatles or Rolling Stones records, but there aren't that many mint copies, says Shirley. Records that didn't sell well when they came out are worth much more. Vinyl from the 50s and 60s is usually collectable, and at the moment certain genres are doing better than others: 70s prog and folk rock, psychedelic, reggae. Even more recent records have become collectable – a collector will pay around £40 for a copy of Blur's Parklife, for instance.

Wedding presents

In the 50s and 60s, many couples received stainless-steel tableware such as teapots and toast racks as wedding gifts. "Look out for anything from the 50s onwards from Old Hall," says Mark Hill, co-author of Miller's Collectables Price Guide and presenter of BBC's forthcoming Cracking Antiques. "Lots of people were given teapots and other kitchenware in the 60s as wedding presents and they've been forgotten about in cupboards." A collector will pay up to £150 for a teapot from the company's Alveston range.

A popular 70s wedding present was Sheringham candlesticks, produced by Kings Lynn and Wedgwood Glass and designed by Ronald Stennett-Willson. "Again, they fell out of fashion, but now they are starting to emerge from lofts and sideboards," says Hill. They are made from coloured discs of glass, and the more discs the candlestick has, the more valuable it is – one with eight discs can be worth more than £1,000.

Marbles

There are marble collectors who will pay up to several hundred pounds for a shiny sphere and a pretty pattern. What you are looking for here is late 19th- and early 20th-century marbles. "They were handmade in Germany and you can tell what they are by looking for two rough patches at the top and bottom," says Hill. What happens with all collectables is that once the very rare, early examples of an item are bought up, collectors move down the food chain to the not-so-old-and-rare versions. "So later marbles made in America by companies such as Akro Agate and Christensen are collectable too, and rising in value. I went through my collection from childhood and I found I had a few good ones." As ever, the better the condition, the better the value, so look for ones that aren't chipped and scuffed – and common cats' eye marbles aren't particularly collectable.

Vintage clothes

Items from valuable designer names such as Ozzie Clark, Biba and Mary Quant are already well-known, but there are others, says Martin, packed away in trunks or hidden at the back of wardrobes that any vintage collector would snap up. "Look for anything by Bill Gibb, the 70s fashion designer, which can be worth up to £600, or Jean Varon – this label was designed by John Bates, and a good maxidress can be worth anything up to around £400." Even modern clothes can fetch high prices on internet auction sites, particularly designer high-street collaborations, says Martin. "Matthew Williamson's 'peacock dress' for H&M can fetch as much as £250."

Ercol furniture

Chances are, you probably won't have an undiscovered Tufft table in the spare room, but more recent furniture can be valuable too. Hill's top tip is for mid-century Ercol furniture, which is particularly sought after at the moment. "Look out for the nest of three 'pebble' tables, particularly in blond wood," says Hill. They are worth around £150, with some shops charging several hundred. "You'd imagine that sort of furniture sitting unloved in a corner somewhere."


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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