Served Rare

Listener – May 25, 2002

The market for rare and collectable New Zealand books is booming. 

Whether they’re worth reading is neither here nor there, but there is good money to be flogging rare, collectable New Zealand books. Peter Trewern, manager of Otaki-based Bethunes Rare Books, the country’s largest book auctioneers, knows a guy who recently bought a hand-coloured botanical book at auction. “He paid $NZ1100 for it and sold it soon after for $US7000,” he says. “That’s not a bad markup and it happens all the time. I have people bringing books here. They have paid $2 for them at some fair and they’re worth $200.”

Trewern says any early ethnological New Zealand material has radically jumped in value. “Anything to do with early Maori printing. The stuff Colenso wrote and printed on his press at Paihia. He wrote a Maori lexicon. He only did the letter A. We sold one for a thousand dollars. You could have bought bundles of them a few years ago for stuff all. You can now get $500 for a one of his four-page leaflets. That would have been the investment to make in the 1960s and 1970s.” 

A benchmark was set at a Bethunes’ auction in March when a bound copy of the New Zealanders Illustrated by George French Angas went under the hammer. The book was published in London in 1846-47 and was originally sent out in 10 installments to 200 subscribers (which included King Albert); it sold to an Aucklander for $31,000. 

But the rare books trade is a fickle market. You would think that the first book wholely about New Zealand – John Savage’s An Account of New Zealand published in 1807 – would command a big price, but you can pick up a copy for around $3000. 

And a book doesn’t have to be old or rare to be collectable. I bought a copy of Robin Morrison’s 1981 South Island from the Road when it was remaindered at Whitcoulls not long after it was published in 1981 for about $30. For some crazy reason I sold it to Wellington second-hand dealer John Quilter for a small profit a few years later. It is now going for about $500. 

“It’s a cult book,” Quilter says. “It was a well-made book and it was early on in Morrison’s career and he went on to achieve a great reputation as a photographer. Looking back that book started looking better and better.” 

Quilter says the highest price someone has paid for a New Zealand novel in his shop is a copy of John Mulgan’s Man Alone in a dust wrapper. “I’ve only ever had one copy in dust wrapper. I sold that to a local collector for $750. And a first edition of The Lagoon, Janet Frame’s first book of short stories, would also fetch that now.” 

The most sought after New Zealand poetry book is The Beggar by R A K Mason. Legend has it Mason got Whitcomb and Tombs Printers to produce the 25-page volume in 1924 and threw a good chunk of the print run off an Auckland wharf because he couldn’t sell them. A copy now fetches about $350. 

Quilter says reading and collecting are separate hobbies. “You can be both, but you can be either. There wouldn’t be that many serious first-edition literary book collectors, but the supply of books is very limited too when you get down to the scarce ones and take into account that collectors want them in very good condition and to get a good clean copy of these old books is not that easy.” 

Trewern takes a pessimistic view of the state of our literary first edition collecting. “There’s no new demand for collecting New Zealand books,” he states. “I’ve got a quite a lot of Nag’s Head Press stuff. Who wants to buy Nag’s Head Press? I mean it’s esoteric, it’s unique, its Kiwi, it’s South Island. But who wants to buy the bloody things. It’s crazy. Most of the people who collect Nag’s Head Press stuff are getting to the point where they’re going to fall off the bloody planet. Most of them are in their 70s. 

“There’s no new emerging younger generation who are interested in New Zealand literary publishing; not in the collecting market. There’s probably more demand for old New Zealand records, than books. I last saw a Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry, with a dust jacket, now that’s like a New Zealand icon. You think it would be worth thousands, but you’ll get it for $200.” 

There’s no doubting Trevern’s passion for his trade which to a large extent is fed by the estates of bibliomaniacs. He points to a stack of boxes in his office at Otaki Railway Station: “That came from a collection in Christchurch that was built up in the 40s and 50s. In some cases he has six or seven copies of the same book, mint. He wrapped them up in newspaper as soon as he bought them and they’ve never been unwrapped. It’s unbelievable. He had something like about 3500 books on shelves wrapped up in newspaper with numbers on them. A lot of them are really valuable. I’ve sold a few for more than $10,000, mainly travel, voyages, overseas published books. 

“He left them to his daughters to worry about. It took them 11 years to get up enough courage to deal with it. It’s a sad thing when someone decides it’s time to sell their books. It’s a really an emotional event. Their book collection is their life. That collection there – it took him since he came back from the war, forty years of collecting.” 


Most important books have a facsimile – in some cases worth thousands of dollars in their own right – or have been reprinted in a different form. But try that argument on a serious rare book collector: they want the real thing. 

So, what makes a book collectable? Ask a dealer in second-hand and first-edition books, or a curator in old tomes, and they’ll throw the question back. What about an original copy of Gutenberg’s Bible? Well yes, that’s an extremely special rare book, but let’s not get silly here – there are only three copies in good nick known to exist and even if you had the dollar equivalent of this country’s GNP to procure one of those copies you’d most probably couldn’t, but $US95,000 would get you a leaf of a fragmented copy. 

Well, what qualifies as a rare book? “It’s a very large question, and you’d get a different answer from everyone you speak to,” says Robert Peter, the Turnbull’s Curator of Special Printed Collections. “We have 17,000 books in what we call our rare books collection and anything published before 1800 is automatically called a rare book. And there are double that many books in the general collection which totals about 300,000 books which I would certainly call rare books and that doesn’t include the valuable and rare material in the New Zealand and Pacific collection.” 

In reality some of the rarest material at the Turnbull is early printed Maori but in monetary terms is not in the same ballpark as the library’s Milton collection, which is “hugely valuable”. 

In 1994 Treasury officials suggested to Governent that some rare books at the Turnbull be sold. The resulting outrage from bookish citizens and library staff put paid to what was clearly regarded as a barbarous notion. 

But there is no stopping the outward bound of privately-held New Zealand books. In recent times the Internet has been the mediator of rare and first-edition book prices, and there are approximately 300 New Zealand “dealers” selling books on the web. According to Trewen, there are approximately 5000 rare and out-of-print books a week leaving these shores, destined for overseas buyers. 

This figure was met with skepticism by Turnbull Library curators, and Quilter says the flow goes two ways. But the outflow of books has Trewern worried: “Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he says. 

Trewern’s lament is fueled by a US Internet company who have evidently done statistics on world book buying and selling patterns and from his own experience in the marketplace. “I’ve got about two dozen Internet clients who buy books off us to sell on the Internet to overseas buyers,” Trewern says. “Books are leaving New Zealand at such a rate that in 10 years time there will be very little of our great grandparents’ culture left here, outside institutions. They’re going to Australia, America, Germany and other European countries.” 

What sort of books are they after? “Military history, travel, a lot travel stuff, early Pacific voyages, early history, early science, first editions. I sold a set of Jane Austen’s recently, a special edition, to Australia,” Trewern says. “A lot of stuff goes to Aussie. The only thing they don’t buy is New Zealand books. They buy the books that the early colonials brought here, with the exception of early travel and discovery books. There’s a bit of interest in that. 

“The only thing I can’t work out is how many more books are out there. It’s a bit like dredging the ocean. How many oysters are left? It’s just the unfathomable.” 

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