History’s handwritten treasures

    1 October 2016

    The collection and display of the written word has long been a symbol of prosperity and prestige. From the Great Library of Alexandria to the John Rylands Collection in Manchester, great individuals and institutions throughout history have assembled rare documents to stand as their monuments. But can there be a shorter-term value to collections such as these? Is it possible to see literary and musical manuscripts as investments, as has become the case with contemporary-artworks, fine wine and classic cars?

    On the face of it, with some careful provisos, the answer is ‘yes’. A cursory glance at auction figures over recent decades provides some astonishing examples. The handwritten manuscript of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat for lute or keyboard sold for the hitherto unthinkable price of £2.5 million at Christie’s sale of valuable books and manuscripts in July. In 2003, a working manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sold for £2.1 million at Sotheby’s in London. The Codex Leicester, a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific observations, became the most expensive manuscript ever sold at auction when it was bought by Bill Gates for a little over $30.8 million at Christie’s in New York in November 1994. These are astonishing figures by any standard, out of reach to all but a tiny minority of super-rich and ferociously determined collectors.

    For those of us who don’t have Bill Gates’s-billions, though, what are the realistic options — and are they likely to bring a return on investment? Donovan Rees, head of manuscripts at antiquarian book dealer Bernard Quaritch, says there are serious considerations to bear in mind before buying. ‘The Antiquarian Booksellers Association has a code of conduct that specifically forbids the marketing of books or manuscripts as investments. The code notwithstanding, we would always advise that the primary motivation for the purchase of a manuscript — which in its widest sense can also encompass annotated books, corrected proofs and typescripts — should be an appreciation of the object itself.’

    But still, I press him, what about the potential payback? ‘For every story of a significant increase in value — the autograph manuscript of Jane-Austen’s early, unpublished novel The Watsons, for example, sold at Sotheby’s in 1988 for £90,000 and resold in 2011 for £850,000… when it was purchased by us on behalf of the Bodleian library — there may be one of loss… John Donne’s autograph letter to Lady-Kingsmill sold in 2004 for £110,000, then again three years later for £95,000, and once more last December in New York for $120,000 (£82,000).’

    Dr Timothy Bolton is head of the western manuscripts and miniatures department at Bloomsbury Auctions and has catalogued and sold manuscripts in many languages, from Coptic to Anglo-Saxon. He holds several world auction records for sales, including that for a single miniature taken from a-medieval manuscript, the 15th-century Kutná Hora figure, which made £612,000 in 2009. I asked him about the type of client he usually deals with and their investment pattern. ‘While most clients buy for the love of medieval manuscripts, [their purchases] do fall into a type of investment used to “fossilise” money. This is because the market for them never experienced the wild booms and crashes seen in the value of paintings or modern art in the last century. And so while they hold their value well, they increase slowly — at about the same rate as gold.’

    The overriding theme of our conversation was the security of investments in manuscripts compared with other rare collectables. This is, after all, a market with an unusually long track record. According to Dr-Bolton: ‘As an old colleague once said to me, manuscripts have been regularly sold since about the 12th century, and since then they’ve been a solid and steady market presence, albeit with a few temporary setbacks in the 15th and 16th centuries due to the Reformation and the invention of printing.’

    Though there are fluctuations, says Donovan Rees, values have recently been increasing. ‘There has been in the past five to ten years a significant uptick in interest in manuscripts, not just of the sort long collected — illuminated medieval manuscripts, books of hours, major literary manuscripts or archives — but also far less canonical items of ‘social history’, from manuscript commonplace and recipe books to diaries and scrapbooks, and even notes scrawled in the margin of printed works. The overriding-factor here is a “uniqueness” that outfaces the impact of-digitisation on the rest of the market.’

    Perhaps the only asset class to have remained as secure as manuscripts is land. Both appreciate steadily in value over decades, if not centuries, and when eventually they are sold, it’s most unusual for there to be no appreciable return on investment. Where-manuscripts have the edge, however, is that they are not only stores of value but also things of beauty. Of course there’s pleasure to be had from contemplating a swathe of English landscape, but it’s hard to imagine the pleasure being as profound and long-lasting as that gained from a fine manuscript.

    Maggs Bros in London’s Curzon Street have been dealing in manuscripts and antiquarian books since 1853. Their current catalogue contains manuscripts to suit every budget, from an English cookery manuscript of the 1890s at £180 to major historical documents available to the highest bidder. I asked Robert Harding, their specialist in early British books and manuscripts, whether investing in single items might generate short-term returns, or whether the-principle of collection for its own sake must be paramount, and capital gain a secondary concern. He told me: ‘It’s not given to most collectors to be able to ignore the cost of their purchases and it’s important to consider their eventual disposition — whether it be by sale, gift or legacy. Experience shows, however, that those who collect with passion and intelligence and who research their field and take the advice of experts almost always do better in the long run than those whose principle regard is to financial returns.’

    This is the wisdom of most experts and collectors, including those who most definitely do consider the return on investment when purchasing new pieces. Not one person to whom I spoke was able to give an example of a manuscript bought and sold in quick succession for significant profit. Unlike, say, a case of first-growth claret bought en primeur, which might be sold for a handsome profit after a decade, a manuscript must be considered primarily as an objet d’art and not as the source of an even moderately fast buck.

    This is not to say there are no financial gains to be had in the shorter term, though they are easier to find in signed first editions of popular modern fiction by the likes of J.K. Rowling. Rather, the reward will come, in the end, from having owned and delighted in a unique piece of handwritten history: the thoughts of Einstein scribbled in the margin of a letter; a note from Elgar to a friend; a scrap of medieval illuminated manuscript, preserved and treasured down the-centuries. If you do eventually sell at a profit, how much greater the satisfaction for having made the pleasure of ownership last a little longer?


    Record price paid at Christie’s in 1994 by Bill Gates for the Codex Leicester of Leonardo da Vinci


    Increase in sale value at Sotheby’s of Jane Austen’s manuscript of her unpublished novel  The Watsons between 1988

    and 2011