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Wednesday, 30 December 2009


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"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...

Well, that's unlikely Mike. Everyone likes to recite outrageous appreciation of such trifles, and it does happen. But, generally speaking it's a far, far more hit-or-miss affair. I do know of two fellows who have been collecting a very specific genre of photo books for 15 years, to the point where they certainly have the finest collection of these books in the world. Their collections, together, might approach a 7-figure valuation and in their case it probably does represent at least a doubling of their money.

But that's rare. People love to cite the $20 book that's now valued at $1,000 but they're less sharp about accounting for the $1,000 of books they've purchased that are now worth par or less. Buying a book-a-month only makes sense if you're trying to build a genre collection...which is generally worth far, far more in estate terms than 1-off copies.

For those interested in collecting photo books, or just spectating, PhotoEye is one of the best sites. Lots of good books, special editions, and auctions there.

Collecting anything should be principally an act of your own personal interests and passions. If you're looking towards more predictable investment appreciation stick to ...stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other such instruments.

It's hard to know what the future holds for traditional books and publishing, particularly for photo books, given the revolutionary changes wrought by the Internet. My suspicion is that in a decade or two we're going to see far fewer titles actually make it into print on paper, excluding perhaps "vanity" Blurb-equivalents, which may paradoxically increase the value of existing physical books. It's also very difficult to predict which books are going to appreciate in value over time. Hence the most important guideline has to be that you personally love the book as an art object first, before considering its financial value.

Having said that, I agree with Mike that the most promising titles are beautifully made original monographs by photographers whose work you love. Track record and edition size can also help; if a photographer's previous books have escalated in value, that's worth noting. And a mass-market confection of 250,000 copies by Ann Geddes is a lot less likely to hold value than an edition of 1,000 by an artist aiming a little higher up the intellectual food chain.

For example...John Sexton is a widely admired large format black & white landscape artist who studied under, then worked with, Ansel Adams. His early (1990) monograph Quiet Light now goes for up to $150 - $300 in collectible condition. His beautifully printed recent monograph, Recollections, is still available new for about $50, and it's an edition of (I believe) 5,000 that is sure to sell out at some point. It'd be hard to go wrong there if you like black & white landscape work.

Mike, Mike, Mike. Since I don't subscribe to political correctness I feel completely free to say that this latest post would make Niccolo Machiavelli very proud. Very very proud ;).

I suppose I've been doing this for the past year: buying about a book a month. Mostly I've been doing it to learn about photographs, about composition, about books, about art. I don't think I could bring myself to treat them as investments for two reasons:
1) I'm not likely to sell them off later and
2) I can do without the hassle of worrying about their condition. I don't want to show someone a book and then hover around to make sure they don't bend the pages too much. I treat my books a little better than my cameras (which are tools and not objects to be babied) but they're not sacred to me and I don't want my enjoyment of them to depend on them being pristine.

So I will continue to buy books and move them around and show them to people and try not to get them water damaged. Meanwhile I will open them and read them again and again and just generally enjoy the hell out of them.

I do like that some people do view them as investments, though. Don't get me wrong. The more people there are interested in buying art objects, the better off life for a lot of art photographers will be. I think one thing that could energize the print and small-run book market would be a somewhat centralized resale marketplace. A place where you could determine how much your copy of The Americans is worth, or whether you might actually think about selling me your copy of Women are Beautiful.

"or whether you might actually think about selling me your copy of Women are Beautiful."

Hey! I have $12.50 invested in that book, I'll have you know.


I'll admit, I could be wrong.

In fact, when it comes to money, usually I am wrong.


I would consider investing in books, but back in the 1930s I put all of my money into buying a bunch of these and I'm only now getting around to selling them off.

Hey, a guy can dream, can't he? (Note that this one has "slight signs of wear.")

This is pretty bad financial advice. Collectibles usually underperform common stocks over long stretches of time (though definitely not the decade we've just endured).

Stocks generate income. They pay dividends, which, when reinvested, can buy more stocks, compounding your investment. Books don't generate more books.

However, there are some caveats here. A shrewd collector, like a shrewd investor, knows how to pick outperformers. Your friend seems to be such an example.

There is also the example I heard on NPR recently, of a blue-collar guy -- a housing contractor -- who, after paying for essentials, put every nickel he had into building a collection of books about Lewis and Clark. It was almost an arbitrary thing: he had no interest in Lewis and Clark and never read the books themselves. He liked the books as objects.

Over a period of years, he built the world's foremost library of books on Lewis and Clark, which was eventually purchased for an undisclosed seven-figure sum by Lewis and Clark University. He retired on the proceeds from the sale.

The moral of the story: if you are going to become a collector of books, specialize.

It's an interesting thought Mike. Keeping with investment terminology, one disadvantage of books as investments (as compared to stocks, mutual funds, etc) might be the "liquidity" factor. If you were to need the money at some point, I wonder how long it would take to capitalize on the books. On the other hand, It could be another avenue for "diversification" and it sure would be much more fun to look at than those stock certificates or mutual fund annual statements:)

Yes, one flaw in the ointment (as my brother used to say) is that just because a specialty book dealer got $500 (or whatever) for a book doesn't mean you or I can. Selling things on Amazon or Ebay levels the playing field somewhat, but it's pretty amazing how much the value of the same book can fluctuate with the same dealer depending on whether you're buying it from him or selling it to him.


ok I am in --- but only with your recommendations Mike -- I love this blog it is the greatest and most honest place in cyberland

by the way i bought the southeast book -- i loved the girl on the car hood ( thru the TOP amazon link of course )

I actually do need to start collecting something and since my photos stink I may as well collect other folks photos --- since my kids would not want mine anyways
I may as well buy some of these photo books


I don't have a market index for photographic books, but I also collect prints, and for them there is a published index.

The Photograph Collector, a subscription newsletter, compiles a Comparative Auction Index using a market basket of 25 prints that appear regularly at auction.

Since this is a paid publication, I won't quote many specifics. However, from the period 1975 to 2001, the photographic index appreciated roughly twice the Dow in percentage terms.

My sense is that books have seen a somewhat similar trend.

Of course, not all books or prints are created equally.

PS I just checked my copy of Berenice Abbott's Changing New York. The dealer pencil notation shows $350, but I think he gave me a discount.

If someone 25 years old put $50 a month into an investment paying an average of 3% a year for 40 years, it would amount to $46,000. Guaranteed, and all in cash. (No need for eBay to cash in.)

It's hard to imagine any scenario where the same amount invested in photo books could even come close. And, even if one could imagine this, one has to take the increased risk into account. This would surely tip the scales in favor of the savings plan.

On the other hand, looking at a bank statement isn't nearly as enjoyable.

On the third hand, if you look at the books, their investment value is greatly reduced.


"PS I just checked my copy of Berenice Abbott's Changing New York"

You know you're killin' me, don't you? You know you're killin' me.

My friend Andy has that book too, I'm sure. Probably two or three. He loves Abbott and when I asked him once what kind of photo books he collects, he named a few things and then shrugged and said, "And of course New York books," as if it were the most obvious thing in the world to collect and everyone would naturally do so. I'm going to bet two copies. At least. I should ask him.


I'm not sure I buy your argument here. To match your example, the photo books would not even have to (quite) double in value, on average. And the thing about a $50 photobook is that, if it's well chosen, its value is very unlikely to drop to zero. It might not hold its value, but after a mean of 20 years, it probably will. But even if it's a dud from an investment standpoint, it's still worth $30, or $20, or at worst $10.

So let's say in an average year, after a mean of 20 years' time has passed (in your example you were investing for 40 years), 5 of your twelve books are duds, and have depreciated to an average of $20 each. Four have held their value, but not appreciated. Two have modestly improved, to three times their original value. And on one, you hit a winner--it's now worth $1,000, twenty times its original value.

By that scenario, you have invested $600 in 12 photobooks, which after 20 years are worth $1600--easily outpacing your investment scenario.

Plus, I don't agree with you that "if you look at the books, their investment value is greatly reduced." You don't have to follow Joe's wine-stains-and-student-thumbprints scenario to enjoy your books. I have plenty of books that I don't look at as much as once a year. And I'm careful when I do look at them. I'm adding no detectable wear to most of my books and depleting their potential future value very little.

Obviously, my numbers here are plucked from thin air, and my argument doesn't prove anything. If you want to argue that it's not easy to pick books that will rise in value from $50 to $1,000, I can't argue with you. But it's not implausible, which at least demonstrates that it's perhaps not as hard as you're making out to double your investment, on average, because your losses are limited but your gains on the occasional lucky "hit" can be considerable.


This is one of your saddest post Mike.

Selling books, specially photo books, is like selling mother's jewelry. It only should be done as a last resource.

And buying a book with its resale price in mind is like looking at your girlfriend while thinking about her pretty house.

In all sorts of collectables - not just photo-books - isn't there an inherent and important difference between "on sale for" and "sold for"?


Well, if you want to get all analytical and all... ;-)

For a retirement plan, one has to consider risk (ask anyone who watched his or her 401(k) drop a year ago). In your scenario, a decent return all depends on your "hit a winner" book. Without that, returns would be mediocre.

$600 invested at 3% over 20 years gives about $1100. Make that 5%, and it goes up to $1600. It's true that bank savings accounts don't pay that much, but there are other very safe forms of long-term investment that do.

Another point: In my original post, I didn't allow for the price of photo books increasing beyond $50 over 40 years. The saver would not invest a flat $50 to keep up with the book buyer, but would have to contribute more, thus increasing the final payoff.


"In your scenario, a decent return all depends on your 'hit a winner' book. Without that, returns would be mediocre. $600 invested at 3% over 20 years gives about $1100. Make that 5%, and it goes up to $1600."

Right you are, but I just called my bank, and their current interest rate for a basic savings account is .1%. That's POINT-one percent, or one-tenth of one percent. (It goes up to .15% with a minimum balance of $1,000 or more.) As alternatives, "very safe forms of long-term investment" are often scarily non-liquid, which in my mind sort of balances out the physical risks of the book strategy.

So we're both sort of painting scenarios that pull chosen conditions out of a hat--conditions that are hopeful, not impossible, but far from certain.

As for the "hit a winner" dependency of my analysis, you're right. But then again, it's happened to me. I have a number of books that I bought for relatively little that I've seen actually sell for 10, 20, and 30 times what I paid for mine (that doesn't *prove* I could get the same price for mine, I admit, but it's certainly not ruled out); I have one book that's worth about $2,500; one I bought on remainder for $5 that now has a median resale price of about $405.

All this aside, I should reiterate: I'm not actually advocating anyone actually invest in photobooks as a retirement strategy. All I'm really claiming with my "analytics" is that it's *possible* that a book collection could outperform a money investment. I'm saying, "could happen," while acknowledging that I can't claim it "will happen."

I can't really disagree with anything you've said, though. I don't really think we're in disagreement here, just each looking more sympathetically from opposite sides.


Last year I bought Alen MacWeeney's Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More, for about £30. I bought it because I'm Irish and grew up with a few kids that lived on travellers camps. At present there's only two used copies on Amazon UK, one's in good condition for £299 and the other is in very good condition for £529. It's cheaper on Amzon US of course but still $400 to $500. Mine's in excellent condition and It'll be mine till the day I die

People have been buying art as investment for a long time. There isn't anything financially suspect nor unethical about that. In fact, those people have very likely more appreciation for art than those who prefer more mainstream investments.


Indeed, I did consult my good friend, Rosey Scenario, when coming up with my model. And, I don't disagree with anything you said, either.

However... I stand by my 3+% over 40 years as a realistic figure. True, banks are paying almost nothing. But, today, with interest rates about as low as they can go, I checked with ING Direct, and they have 60 month CDs at 1.75%. (FDIC insured.)


I have bought a few books in my day and I thought I got a good deal on an Ansel Adams book for $5. That is simply amazing.

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