WHY COLLECT MANUSCRIPTS AND ASSOCIATED MATERIAL?
Manuscripts are important -- they are the central core of human knowledge for most aspects of the past -- civilisation has indeed largely depended on the written word. They are how much of History happened; or how we know it happened. Manuscripts and letters are the closest we can get to the lives, thoughts and emotions of the great personalities of history. To own an interesting manuscript in the handwriting of Nelson or Keats is a stirring experience. This does not depend on the text alone but also on the physical presence of the writing and paper. They are living handshakes across history; they are the first alternative to speech and therefore the most human form of history. [For an extended view of why manuscripts are important to mankind and why we collect them - please click on MANUSCRIPTS - AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?]
Manuscripts are of great interest. Having a collection of anything is one of the ways in which we are defined as individuals. Many people's lives are greatly enriched by their collections -- some are positively famous because of them. They derive enormous pleasure for themselves and from showing their friends letters they own by Nelson, or Napoleon, or T.E. Lawrence, or Winston Churchill, or S.T. Coleridge, or Queen Elizabeth I, or Captain Scott, to name but a few. Every item is like a key to a whole branch of new knowledge; each is an opportunity for learning. Unlike share certificates per se, manuscripts bring us a field of real personal pleasure that we can share [if you will forgive the pun].
Manuscripts offer a wider choice than almost any other collecting area -- they range over virtually every field of human endeavour -- literature, art, music, exploration, science, medicine, finance, magic, cricket, hunting, cooking, yachting, cricket, religion, economics, space, architecture, aviation. The choice is almost limitless.
Manuscripts are generally very good value. Although a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci sold for $30,802,500 in 1994 (bought for $5,148,000 in 1980), the vast majority of really interesting and significant manuscripts can be bought in a range of about £1,000-£50,000. But many can be obtained for less. Indeed, while you may read of a small number making six figures (or, rarely, even seven), first class items in some categories can still be picked up for just a few hundred pounds. Most are still bought and sold under the Capital Tax threshold of £6,000 and, since only in the rarest cases can they be said to form a set, any number below the threshold can be sold as chattels in a year without incurring CGT, unless so constant a level of activity were attained that the Revenue could call you a dealer. [This last sentence applies only in the United Kingdom].
Are manuscripts a good investment? The investment aspect of any work of art should not, as is often said, be the prime or indeed any part of the reason for buying it. But only the very rich or foolhardy (I do not mean thereby to associate them), or the already deeply committed collector can entirely avoid the issue, if only on the level of 'am I getting value for money?' The fact is that with rising values people are no longer putting only small sums into their collections and not wasting one's money is a reasonable concern. But it is only fair to say that, as with any work of art, values are only realised when sales are made and there is not as ready a market for them as the immediate one offered by the Stock Exchange. Also, like any investments, values can fall as well as rise and can be subject to fashion and outside market forces. This is why it is perhaps wise to consider any 'alternative investment' as only an additional element in one's portfolio.
Given strict adherence to a few basic criteria, I believe it is reasonably possible to safeguard against most predictable eventualities. These criteria are:
a) The writer of the manuscript or letter should be of real historical importance and have fairly wide appeal.
b) The subject matter should not be trivial and as far as possible it should relate to major events in the writer's life, preferably to the reason for his fame. Sometimes content on its own can be so good that the writer can be an unknown person. But, I believe one must always be careful to avoid diluting a collection with manuscripts and letters which are not much more than standard examples of the handwriting of a personality without interesting content. These will be much more difficult to resell and are less likely to rise in value.
c) The person to whom a letter is written should be of significance.
d) The manuscript should be in good condition.
e) The manuscript should be kept in satisfactory conditions (I can advise on this).
f) Each item should have a proper and full description with it pointing out its merits and its full historical context (this would be part of the service I offer).
g) Manuscripts should generally not be regarded as very short-term acquisitions.
An example of value. The British Rail Pension Fund bought manuscripts in the 1970s and sold them mostly between 1986 and 1988. A letter by George Eliot bought for £330 sold for £2,640; a letter of Robert Louis Stevenson that cost £352 sold for £1,430; a document signed by Humphrey Gilbert sold in 1976 for £5,000 was sold again in 1986 for £38,000; a letter by Charles Babbage bought for £1,000 was recently resold for £18,000; and part of the manuscript of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater made £3,500 in the 1970s and was resold for £26,000 in 1988. I can give more recent examples, not all of which, of course, would necessarily show quite such dramatic returns. But the better the quality the more likely the manuscript will appreciate in monetary value.
How you can add value to your purchases. It is worth keeping in mind that when it is sold a named collection can often be worth considerably more than the sum of its parts, if they were disposed of piece meal over time. By building a collection you can add value to your purchases sometimes to an astonishing degree. Further research into the background of the material can often add immense value. To find out that when Jane Austen mentioned 'my own darling child from London' she was referring to Pride and Prejudice would add considerably to both the interest and value of the letter.
Dangers: Fakes, Forgeries and Facsimiles. It is part of my expertise and function to ensure that you do not acquire fakes, forgeries, contemporary copies, confused identities or facsimiles.
My role is to help you avoid the pitfalls, bring material to your attention, catalogue it for you properly and ensure that you are taking all reasonable steps to protect your acquisitions. I could also advise you on trends in the market that might influence the best time to effect sales.
If you would like more information or to discuss any of these matters, please contact me at:
Roy Davids Ltd., The Old Forge, Rectory Road, Great Haseley, Oxford OX44 7JG
Telephone 01844 279 154; Facsimile O1844 278 221; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
I tried to bring together some of the elements of the importance
of manuscripts and of the forces impelling their collection in a few lines see
© Roy Davids 2004