Searching for the holy grail of rare books

Matteo Di Maio takes a look at New Zealand’s most expensive rare books.

Anah Dunsheath from Rare Books in Auckland knows how you ought to take an old book off the shelf, and how you ought not to. Novices will just pull the book out by the top of its spine. But you’ll damage the spine, she said, and also reduce the value. Instead, you should push aside the two books on either side of the book you want, and pull it out with spine and value intact. “Any purveyor of fine books looks for that spot first,” Dunsheath said.

The one thing beginner collectors of rare books miss when they’re starting out is the importance of a book’s spine and binding, she said. “The binding is more than half of the value.”

In New Zealand, the volumes which most consistently find their way onto the valuable rare-books market are by two 19th century authors: Walter Buller, and George French Angas. A Buller or Angas in good condition can push $10,000, and often far beyond. “They are certainly the most consistent hi-spot items in NZ book collecting,” emailed Donald Kerr, a former special collections curator at Otago University and now independent book historian. Complete editions of Captain James Cook’s Voyages also go for fabulous sums.

But for veteran bookseller Warwick Jordan from Hard to Find in Auckland and Dunedin, volumes by Buller and Angas are “just not that exciting.” To Jordan, the truly interesting rare Kiwi books are the ones with “really cool stories behind them”.

As follows, a list of 10 of New Zealand’s most expensive - and coolest - rare books.

1 Buller’s Birds

Published in the early 1870s, A History of the Birds of New Zealand remains New Zealand’s most well-known book about birds. Known colloquially as “Buller’s birds,” the book combines field observations by ornithologist Walter Buller and plates by the artist JG Keulemans. Only 500 copies were ever printed.

Unfortunately, owners tended to cut out the pages of the most popular birds — like the kiwi, said Anah Dunsheath. “To get a complete set is very rare.” Copies surface every few years and can fetch over $3000.

Anthony Gallagher from the Dunbar Sloane auction house wrote in an email, “Buller’s volumes come through regularly and tend to have a pretty constant price bracket. For example a pair of 1888 vols in used and worn condition will be $3000-5000, whereas a fine set would be more like $6000-10,000.”

2 The New Zealanders Illustrated

Natural history artist George French Angas came to New Zealand in 1844. He met and sketched prominent Māori chiefs; his 1847 book The New Zealanders Illustrated is one of the holy grails of rare books. According to Donald Kerr, only about 250 copies were printed. On the online marketplace Abe Books, a first edition is listed at US$21,000.

(He also published Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. He wrote in the introduction, "My aim has been to describe faithfully impressions of savage life and scenes in countries only now emerging from a primitive state of barbarism.")

The last time that Anthony Gallagher from Dunbar Sloane auctioned a copy of The New Zealanders was a restored copy that went between $16,000-20,000. But he said a copy in good condition could fetch between  $20-30,000.

"The most expensive book I've sold went for $156,000" - Auckland auctioneer

3 Captain Cook’s Voyages

“Complete is the ultimate,” said Anah Dunsheath. She means a complete set. Prime example: a set of James Cook’s Voyages—with all the original maps and engravings—is valued at $56,000. Bound with red gilt Moroccan leather with marbled boards, the eight books comprise three volumes, recounting his three epic voyages. Each book was published separately during the 1770s.

The first voyage contains some 51 plates and charts. The second voyage describes Cook’s search for the mythological “great southern continent.” It also details first contact with Māori. The book of his final voyage—ending when Cook was murdered in Hawaii—was drawn from Cook’s own journals, and completed by James King. In total, the collection contains more than 200 maps and engravings.

“Very few remain complete,” says Dunsheath. “Very few.”

4 Aurora Australis

“I think the most expensive book I have sold was a copy of Ernest Shackleton’s Aurora Australis,” said Pam Plumbly from the Art + Object auction house in Auckland.

It collates stories, poems and humorous essays by Shackleton’s crew during the 1908-09 Nimrod Expedition. “Some of the men had undertaken short printing courses prior to their departure and Shackleton took down paper and a small printing press with him. The ink had to be heated by candles and the printing was done at night,” Plumbly said.

She sold it for $156,000.

5 Ko te katikihama III

A six-page book of scriptures in Māori, Ko te katikihama III, is the first book printed in New Zealand. William Yate of the Church Missionary Society set sail for New Zealand in 1827. Three years later, he travelled to Sydney, and brought back a printing press to publish translations of catechisms from The Book of Common Prayer. He produced Ko te katikihama III in Kerikeri in 1830.

Donald Kerr said that only two copies are known to exist. One is kept at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and another is held in the Grey Collection at Auckland City Library. He wrote in an email: “If anyone found a third copy!!!!”

6 New Zealand the Way I Want It

Bob Jones walked into Hard To Find Books a few years ago. Shop owner Warwick Jordan said to him, “Oh, I just happen to have a copy of a more interesting than usual copy of one of your books.”

It was his 1978 manifesto New Zealand the Way I Want It, which Jones had inscribed to his then-friend, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. The two later fell out and ceased all contact with each other.

Jordan: “So I pulled it out and showed it to him. He said to me, ‘It doesn’t surprise me he sold that.’

“And I said, ‘Well actually he didn’t sell it. I bought it off his estate. He had it until the day he died.’”

Jones was touched by the story – but didn’t buy it.  “He’s a millionaire for a reason,” as Jordan laughed. The asking price is $975.

7 The Art of Flying

Warwick Jordan owns a copy of a book called The Art of Flying which is only of any interest because of who touched it: Jean Batten.

In December 1932, Batten was preparing to fly from England to Australia. Only problem was she lacked a plane. She turned to her new boyfriend, Victor Doree, who borrowed money from his mother to buy Batten a Gipsy Moth Airplane.

A few months earlier, Doree was presented with a book about that same plane by its author, Captain Norman Macmillan. The Art of Flying is now part of Jordan’s collection.

“It’s not about Jean Batten, it’s not signed by Jean Batten, but it’s so connected to her - it’s got its own story,” Jordan said. “It’s the book that influenced the choice of plane that she was going to fly.”

"He’d found a 'true' first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland...A copy was sold in the US for $2-3million."

8 Rewi’s Last Stand

Ngati Maniapoto chief Rewi Maniapoto fought his so-called “last stand” at Ōrākau, near Kihikihi, in 1863.  In 1925, Kiwi filmmaker Rudall Hayward turned the famous land wars battle into one of New Zealand’s very first films, as a silent movie, and also directed a full-sound version in 1940. As well, he told the story in a book. A first edition copy  - signed by Hayward and the film’s star Ramai Te Miha - is for sale at Hard To Find for $500. Not a massively expensive book, says Jordan, but the signatures make it a massively cool book.

9 Paddington Bear untold stories

Someone, somewhere in New Zealand owns a copy of Michael Bond’s original, unpublished Paddington Bear stories.

The first Paddinton Bear story was published in October 1958. But according to Warwick Jordan, he wrote an earlier manuscript - and based one of the characters on a woman in New Zealand.  He wrote a story which involves his immortal bear engaging in our favourite sport: “I do remember seeing a picture of Paddington holding a rugby ball,” said Warwick Jordan, who was shown a copy of the unpublished manuscript.

He last heard from the owner five years ago, he said. “I just don’t think her heart was in selling.”

How much is it worth? “How long is a piece of string?” Jordan answered. “I mean, there’s the publication rights as well, because they’re original stories. I just don’t know…The reality is, you’d have to put them to auction to get, you know, a good indication of what they were worth.”

The Paddington Bear books have sold over 35 million copies, and the two Paddington Bear movies have grossed about $US500 million.

10 Alice in Wonderland

Around 30 years ago, when Warwick Jordan had just finished buying some books off a family, they asked him if he could take a look at a small shelf of volumes that belonged to their great-great-grandmother, “just in case” there was anything there that might be valuable. Jordan had a look. His eyes seized on one particular book. He thought to himself: “Holy crap.”

He’d found a “true” first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Two thousand copies of the very first edition of Carroll’s classic children’s story were printed in June 1865. But the book’s illustrator was unhappy with the drawings, and Carroll recalled the print run. Those 2000 copies initial copies, Carroll wrote in his diary, ought to be “sold as wastepaper”. A second “first edition” was published. Today, only 22 known copies of those original 2000 remain in the world.

In 2016, one of these 22 books went to auction in New York, fetching an estimated US$2m-$3m. But there was something even more special about the Kiwi family’s Alice in Wonderland edition—it was signed by the author. Jordan said, “It’s a unique copy. It’s not just mega rare—which it would be anyway—it’s, as far as I know, the only signed copy.”

As far as he knows, it’s still with the original family. “It hasn’t [yet] come onto the market because it’d be a huge news story,” he said. Someone, somewhere in New Zealand, is sitting on an absolute fortune.

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