|The collecting of Tolkien's
books is the area that draws the greatest resources and acquisition
frenzy. I am reminded of all of Tolkien's admonitions against desire
whenever I see prices for Tolkien editions in the thousands of dollars.
There is no logical explanation for demand like this, it is simply
the expression of unreasonable desire for objects in small supply.
Here is an outline of the levels of Tolkien book collecting, roughly
organized by rarity and book values.
1) The most desirable
copies of Tolkien's books are signed and inscribed copies of the
Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. These are incredibly desireable
because Tolkien signed so few copies and these were usually given
to friends and family members. Tolkien did not publish in the era
of the modern book signing event and I have never heard that he
ever did anything like a book signing. The result is that very few
copies exist with his signature. A copy of the Hobbit signed by
him will have a retail price in the thousands and thousands of dollars.
Virtually all of the rare, signed copies of these books are sold
by antiquarian book dealers and major auction houses. I hesitate
to mention any recent prices quoted by dealers since the price has
probably gone up higher than my imagination.
2) The next level of
book collecting involves the first printings of the Hobbit and the
Lord of the Rings. Although I think I have heard all the arguments
from book dealers, I still cannot understand why first printings
are so desirable. In some cases, the first printing is absolutely
identical to subsequent printings except that the phrase "First
Edition", or "First Printing" appears on the inside
publication history page. The difference in price between the first
printing and subsequent ones is usually considerable. Why any reasonable
person would pay $1,000 or more for the phrase "First Edition" is beyond me. In Tolkien's case, the first printing of the Lord
of the Rings was characterized by more differences than a simple
phrase, however, the small differences, mostly publishing errors,
still do not justify the extreme difference in price. I am completely
happy with a later printing of the first edition of the Lord of
If you are serious about
collecting Tolkien's early book editions, you must get a copy of
the Bibliography by Wayne Hammond and Douglas Anderson. It contains
all the necessary fine points for determining the early editions.
J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. (1993). Wayne G.
Hammond with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson. New Castle,
DE: Oak Knoll Books. Oak Knoll Books. It is also available
from St. Paul's Bibliographies, Winchester, U. K.
You must also subscribe
to The Tolkien Collector, published by Christina
Scull and Wayne Hammond. They keep up with the book dealers, especially
those not on the internet, and will tip you to sources for the rare
3) Following the first
editions of Tolkien's most famous works, the next level of book
pricing is first editions of Tolkien's other books and copies of
his other publications. Of course, he also pubished other fiction
in book form, such as Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom
Bombadil and Smith of Wootten Major. Other fiction includes his
poetry, which was published in very rare volumes, such the Songs
for the Philologists, and Oxford Poetry of 1915. His nonfiction
includes professional publications, such as A Middle English Vocabulary,
published in 1922 and Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, published
in the Proceedings of the British Academy, 1937. All of these works
are described in Hammond, cited above.
4) The final level of
collecting includes a great variety of material, such as modern
collectors editions, Folio Society editions, Easton Press editions,
special illustrated editions, early printings of the revised editions
of the Lord of the Rings, critical works about Tolkien, early fan
magazines (fanzines), the December, 1967 issue of Rebook magazine
(it contains an early illustrated printing of Smith of Wootton Major),
the first printing of the Ballantine paperback version of the Hobbit (the one
with the lion on the cover), and signed copies of the Silmarillion
by Christopher Tolkien.
One note of advice subsumes all the others: Whenever you buy a rare collectible item, take the point of view of the most skeptical collector. Would the most skeptical collector accept that the item is genuine? Would the most skeptical collector accept that the signature is valid? Would the most skeptical collector purchase this item at this price? The reason it is important to take this point of view is that the most skeptical collector will be the most likely buyer of the item in the future. If Mr. Skeptic does not accept the validity of the item then the item is worthless. Don't be taken in by the claims of sellers, no matter how honest they are. They want to get past your defenses and have you construct a wonderful fantasy about the condition and rarity of the item. Don't let this happen. On the day you need to sell the item, the value will be set by Mr. Skeptic and not by Mr. Seller.
A Note on Preservation.
There are positive and negative aspects to the fact that
Tolkien published in the modern era of mass production. The positive
result was that thousands of copies of his first edition were produced.
Imagine the prices if his books were published before the 20th Century,
when publishing was so expensive that small printing runs of first
editions were commonplace. The negative consequence is that his
early books were likely printed on such inferior paper that they
will literally turn to dust in a few decades. That is the bane of
early 20th Century publishing. Early 20th Century industrial paper
production utilized wood pulp that was full of chemical impurities
that result in the enhanced oxidation and acid deterioration of
the paper. In the late 20th Century, standards were introduced by
paper manufacturers to alleviate this problem but these were too
late for Tolkien's collectible books. Buffering and de-acidifying
agents can be added to the declining paper but this only delays
An excellent reference
on the general care of books and other paper collectibles is An
Ounce of Preservation by Craig Tuttle. He conveys some very
simple and concise advise on preventing or delaying the decline
of common paper items, such as books, photographs and prints.