Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2005 Issue

Following Up a 25-Year-Old Book Investment Scheme


These eleven books averaged over a 1,000% return in 14-17 years.

The books would be held in the investor's portfolio. "Should a collector want an item currently in an investor's portfolio the investor would be informed of the fact and the proposed price." It is not stated how collectors would be made aware of what books were held in the Edwards portfolio, though presumably this was addressed. Edwards' commission is not stated, but we can also presume there was one of these. These were questions the prudent investor would undoubtedly ask before turning over a sum of money.

Ultimately, the "scheme" failed. In an email response, Greg Coombes, the current Chief Executive of Francis Edwards, said the portfolio scheme led to a great furor in the book world, including an article in a trade publication. There are undoubtedly some readers out there, longer involved in the book trade than I, who remember this incident. Coombes explained that the firm believed some of the comments were actionable, and took the matter to court. Between what was likely disappointing results in gaining investors and costs of litigation, which proved unsuccessful, the company failed. Present ownership purchased the venerable firm out of receivership in the fall of 1982, and restored it to its traditional bookselling role.

Our point is not to stir up old controversies. Whatever the issues were then, we do not care. However, it can be interesting to look back at this proposal with the benefit of hindsight. Why might this scheme have looked appealing at the time, and were the expectations on which it was based realized in the years ahead, or did the scheme fall short? Those are the interesting questions, as undoubtedly it is just a matter of time before conditions bring about a new plan based on similar assumptions.

It is not surprising that a plan like this would be offered in 1980. Investors were searching for ways to achieve returns which would outpace rising inflation. The stock market had been dead for years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 1980 virtually the same as it closed 1965. So what better time to show investors what books had done over the same period? Edwards produced a chart of 11 items, purchased in the early 1960s and sold in the late 1970s. There was a 1791 Boswell's Life of Johnson, a 1690 first edition of Locke's Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, D.H. Lawrence's 1915 The Rainbow, and eight others. Returns ranged from a low of 271% to a high of 1,946%. That's a low of 271%. Compare that to a flat stock market. The average return was over 1,000%. Not bad for around 15 years.

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