Don't bank on literary values when Beckett bags millions
Who was surprised that the rather scribbled-on manuscripts of Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy sold at Sotheby's for almost £1m? Antiquarian dealers may have whistled in appreciation, but Beckett's market stock is high, so the near-million-pound tag is not unexpected.
The purchaser, Reading University, says the six jotters "will provide unparalleled opportunities to learn more about one of the greatest writers in living memory, if not all time". At a more down-to-earth level, they could also prove a wise investment.
As in every other field, stocks in writers' reputations go up and down. At the top of the range of Irish writers – Beckett, Yeats, Joyce, Swift, Wilde – there is a consistent demand for their papers and for deluxe editions of their work.
But some writers fall in value with the passage of time – surprisingly, early editions of Iris Murdoch, the esteemed Dublin-born author of The Red and the Green, are now not much in demand. John Fowles is another example: the author of The French Lieutenant's Woman was a cult figure a few decades ago, but today editions don't excite the market.
One of the top commodities in this field is, predictably, an original (1922) edition of Joyce's Ulysses, of which there remain about 750 copies extant. You could probably purchase one at between £125,000 and £200,000.
The price of these commodities may be partly fashion, but the rule of supply and demand also applies. There is only one set of Beckett's original jotters, so the value is high.
And the celebrity rule applies to the arts – books, manuscripts and paintings – as to everything else. The very famous names are 'brands', which hold their value. Expensive stuff will always sell; it's the middling range that's dicey.
Memorabilia associated with the Easter Rising of 1916 was doing very well up to recently. Original posters of the declaration of the Irish Republic went to auction at high valuations.
Irish-Americans are rich collectors of this material – the University of Kansas holds a particularly valued edition of the 1916 declaration – but since the economic slump, there has been a fall-off in the demand for Irish material. The banking crisis in the Republic has also affected the sales of Irish memorabilia, as bankers and traders were buying into these commodities.
Indian objects are rising in fashion at present. Mahatma Gandhi's sandals recently sold for £19,000 – he who lived a life of voluntary poverty.
One of the main drivers of high prices for manuscripts, memorabilia and books is the bonus culture among City of London bankers and traders.
There are said to be 1,000 bankers in London's Square Mile still receiving £1m bonuses annually and they are often looking for places to invest their money. Having acquired the trophy wife, the Chelsea house and a property or so overseas, the City swell may turn to a disused rectory in the countryside, which will require, as a pleasing accessory, a library.
Such a library will cost between £500,000 and £1m to install: our banker or trader will naturally wish to display fine books with original bindings – modern book-binding techniques are lamentably inferior to the traditional craft.
He may not choose to read them, but books give a room character and imply a person is cultured. There also remains a strong interest in specialised books on military history, vampires and erotica (posh porn), among others.
You thought Beckett was about literary values? Maybe.
But follow the money to see the market price.