I know I said yesterday that I don't buy or recommend photo books as investments, and I truly don't, but the conversation in the comments got me to thinking about something.
You might remember the story I've told of my onetime friend Jim S., a fine photographer in his own right. Jim was in the habit of purchasing one original art photograph per year, on his birthday. My memory for numbers is inherently weak (what do they call it?—innumeracy, I think), but I believe that his collection numbered about 20 photographs when I knew him. I only saw the collection once, and my memory of it (uncharacteristically this time, because I have a protean memory for pictures) is also hazy, but I believe it included such highlights as an Ansel Adams, a Cartier-Bresson, and an Edward Weston—big-name photographers, anyway. It's been fifteen years and more since I've seen or talked to Jim, but if his collecting habit is still in place, his collection must number 35 prints, or a little more, and I'm going to guess that its current worth is many times the dollar amount he has invested in it.
So here's what I was musing about yesterday. If you're relatively young—in your 20s, say, or early 30s—I'll bet that if you bought yourself just one photography book every month, and kept adding to that library throughout your life, that investment, by the time you reach retirement age, would outperform every other investment you might have—whether it's your house, or stocks and bonds, or what have you.
A rather dog-eared copy of this book, on sale now for $6,500. Only the occasional book will appreciate like this—a place in Parr and Badger and in Roth, plus a tangential interest for collectors of New Yorkiana, keep interest in this title high
True, some conditions would have to be met. You'd have to keep up with what's happening in the world of photography, and you'd have to have, or develop, a sense of bookcraft—the telltales of well-made books. You'd have to buy original monographs (not reissues, or retrospective exhibition catalogs, or historical figures, or demotic scenic or travel photographers, or how-tos), and it would help if you were interested in emerging or less established photographers in the dynamic phases of their careers.
I'm just...you know
I'm honestly not suggesting you do this—certainly, not purely as an investment. Even if you did, the requirements of caring for a growing library are considerable. Books take up lots of space, they are famously difficult to move, and they are vulnerable—to fire and flood especially, but also to dust and pests and quotidian damage and so forth. (A drop to the floor and a bad bump on a corner could cost you $100 or more, which is, admittedly, a ridiculous concept.) I really do think such a library would have to be something you'd enjoy owning and actively using (does anyone recall my long-ago article "How to Read a Photographic Book"?), not just a set-aside for your retirement. I'm not sure how possible it would be to buy books just as investments, without somehow vectoring in on your personal interests as well.
But...well, you know. If...then. I'm just sayin'.
A post I'm planning in the New Year is "Great Books You Can't Buy"—some favorites of mine that are no longer available without a search, considerable expense, some luck, or all three. It's an interesting list.