I know, probably the exact wrong time of year for this post, what with many peoples' pockets and purses depleted by the holidays. You know what they say: oh well.
Not long ago I got an email from a reader who said he'd come into a little windfall and wanted to pick up some photo books he'd missed, including TruthBeauty, an exhibition catalog from a show of Pictorialism at the Vancouver Art Gallery that Geoff reviewed a while back. The book is now out of print. Although there are probably better bargains out there if you look hard enough, used copies on Amazon are going for a low of $60 to a high of $262.28, and new copies start at $245. When we reviewed it, you could buy it new for $37.80.
And that was not even a year ago—February of this year to be precise.
I need to point out (again) that I don't buy photo books as financial investments, and, despite the stock-market language in the title of this post, I don't recommend them as such. The only concern I have with photo books appreciating quickly in value is that they can price themselves out of reach; what you can afford new at one time might be much harder to swallow even a year or two later. The example I always use is Roth's Book of 101 Books, which I wanted (and still want) but which was "too expensive" at $110 or so when I saw it new. So I held off. Now look at it. (Although, note, these prices are much lower than they were about 14 months ago, when the cheapest used price was in the $900+ range.)
And, of course, I can't guarantee that any particular book will appreciate in value. I'm happy to predict any event that will happen beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this—I'm willing to tell you exactly what will happen in 2110, for instance—but, for events closer to now, I disavow any crystal-ball-gazing ability. You'll recall I thought Saul Leiter's Early Color was in the "get it while you can" category, because of the first printing's spotty availability and its very volatile pricing early on, but then the publisher ran an evidently much bigger second printing and you can get it new to this day. (Still a great book, of course.)
Anyway, all that said and clear and set, here are three books I think are hot buys right now and are likely to get harder to come by in the future:
South East by Mark Steinmetz
Mark Steinmetz, of Athens, Georgia, is undeniably a rising star of art photography thanks to his eloquent recent books; the slightly earlier companion to this one, South Central, is out of print, and its price is rising.
Witness Number 6 by Lee Friedlander
Lee and Maria Friedlander's affectionate portrait of Armenian-American sculptor Raoul Hague (born Haig Heukelekian in Constantinople) who lived the fully examined life in a cabin in upstate New York, is the sixth in Nazraeli's "Witness" series, earlier numbers of which are getting devilishly difficult to obtain. Witness Number 7, pairing pictures by the poet of darkness and abandonment Todd Hido with Leon Borensztein portraits from the '80s, is also still available. Earlier numbers, good luck.
One of a celebrated coterie of students of Bernd and Hilla Becher that includes Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff has become one of the leading lights of German art photography. His jpegs is the culmination of a monumental project that looks like it will be remembered as an early milepost of the digital transition. There is also a much more expensive limited edition version.
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Finally, though perhaps not in the art-hothouse category of books whose value is likely to rise, I got next year's delightful handmade calendar from Charles Cramer the other day (thanks very much, Charlie, if you're reading this!), and he mentioned that the book of Yosemite landscapes he did with Karl Kroeber, Scot Miller, Mike Osborne, and Keith S. Walklet from their show at the Ansel Adams Gallery has been selling like crazy and is almost gone. If you want it, better not count on a second edition. The book's called First Light: Five Photographers Explore Yosemite's Wilderness. Here's the U.K. link.-
(If you can't see this video, please go here.)
"When I bought from book dealers, I always kept the purchase price penciled inside. I have some books that are marked under $100 that would now fetch many thousands.
"Nice to know, but I still love them and have no intention of selling. It is smart, however, to get a collection appraised from time to time, if for no other reason than to maintain sufficient insurance.
"If one is interested in investment, however, it's of course important to keep the book...and the cover...in great condition. A book with a damaged or lost dust jacket could easily lose 75% of its value. A signed copy can also be important, if down the road the photographer is worthy. For living photographers, I've often taken books to exhibits or lectures, calling in advance to see if they have time and would be willing to sign.
"I used to come across some real bargains in old book stores here and overseas. But, merchants have become increasingly savvy about book values, and of course the smaller stores are now hard to find."
ADDENDUM by Jeff: "Given the discussion on book values in the comments, I'll add a bit to my post.
"While I don't plan to sell my collection, I need a realistic insurance value: for me if there's ever a loss or natural disaster; and for my potential heirs. I think this is wise for anyone having valuables and collectibles, especially if they are not commonly known items to others, including insurance companies and heirs. Toward this end, I used to have the book dealers I trusted to give me a written estimate based on their current sales. I would have them update this every five years or so.
"Last year, in preparation for a big move, I decided to send my list (with dealer notations on particulars, including condition) to an auction house in New York that specializes in photo book sales. This gave me another real world valuation, without any emotion attached.
"As I said earlier, though, the books are here for me to enjoy, not to sit idly on a shelf waiting for sale. But, if circumstances change, I'm better prepared."