A new collector got in touch recently to ask our opinion on an inscribed book. He was concerned because the book was signed to someone else. I pointed out the various merits and flaws with the different types of signatures. It seemed apt thereafter to share this on our blog.
Signed or Inscribed
This is an oft mentioned argument. A signed book is one where the author has scrawled nothing but their name on the book. An inscribed book on the other hand usually carries the name of the recipient in the author’s hand [often an inscribed book will just carry a greeting without a name]. Of late there has been debate about the various merits of the two types of signature. I’ll outline below the merits of each.
A signed book
An inscribed book
An inscribed book is usually signed to someone else and carries their name. People often find this less than desirable because every time the owner examines the signature they are reminded that the book isn’t signed to them personally. This is just a facade of course, as a book purchased signed or inscribed has no connection with the purchaser anyway. But it is easy to see how the anonymous signature could be preferred. That being said, here at Hyraxia, we believe the more ink on the page the better. If a collector looks to buy only books signed without an inscription then they are often dismissing inscriptions that could have merit of their own; even a few brief words can give a deep insight into the author’s manner and make an ordinary book something special.
A book inscribed without a name.
Of greater significance is where an author signs without inscription by default. In these cases, such as with Graham Greene, an inscription is preferred. These signatures are both scarcer and more collectable as Greene generally inscribed books to people he knew.
The final point to consider is forgeries. A forger is less likely to risk exposure by writing an essay on the title page. That said, an expert forger will likely find it easier to dupe a buyer if they inscribe the book too. Either way, there is more room for error in an inscribed book than a signed book.
Presentation copies are often preferable to a regular signed copy particularly if signed by the author. Presentation copies are books signed and presented at the author’s behest, not the recipient’s request. This is significant because they are often scarcer, but also because there is an implicit, if somewhat forgotten or hazy, connection between the recipient and the author.
A presentation copy signed on behalf of the author
We mentioned above that presentation copies are preferred, with the caveat of them being signed by the author. Wealthier or busier authors would often have a secretary or publisher sign a presentation copy on the author’s behalf. One should always be cautious when considering a book signed ‘with the author’s compliments’ or similar. This is often autographed by someone else, but still collectable. Earlier books were often signed in this manner, seek advice from an antiquarian or rare bookseller if you’re unsure.
An association copy is generally the best state of a signed book. An association copy is a book that has been signed by the author and subsequently owned by someone with whom there is an explicit connection to the book or author. These can be books signed by the author to a relative or friend, someone well known in particular other authors, people involved in the publication or people associated with the content of the book. It is always important to seek further provenance for association copies. A book signed “from Roald to Quentin” seems likely to be for Quentin Blake, but one must assess this based on evidence at hand – ask a Roald Dahl specialist if he ever signed books to Quentin Blake.
An association copy from Thea Von Harbou to her Hairdresser
An association copy from Asimov to Brunner
One can also find association copies that are unsigned, these are still desirable in their own right.
Often authors will write a date beneath their signature. It is generally accepted that a date closer to the publication date is preferred, primarily because this implies that the book was signed close to the publication date. Collectors prefer earlier signatures for two reasons: firstly, there’s an implicit connection to the book’s publication – in the same way first editions are collected, there’s a desirability to collect things in their earliest appearance; secondly, early signatures are often scarcer and more attractive as authors are less well-known and take a little more time and care over the signings.
A book signed and dated (in this case prior to publication)
Often one will see signatures pre-dating publication, these are usually where an author has signed a batch of books for a shop prior to publication, but there are some books where the pre-publication date signifies a presentation copy; the books have come from the author’s personal allowance.
As authors age and attend more and more signings it’s not uncommon to see their signatures change, as noted above. The classic example is Terry Pratchett whose signature shifted from a full forename and surname in an attractive scrawl to what is essentially a symbol. We recently handled a collection of signed Pratchett books each of which held a contemporary signature and the progression was quite obvious. The early signatures are scarcer and indicative of a contemporary signing.
A recent Pratchett signature
An early Pratchett signature
Other than scarcity and desirability, one can also use signature ages to determine the authenticity of a signature. A copy of Pratchett’s latest book with an early signature is highly unlikely, and should be viewed as suspicious.
Bookplates come in a variety of forms and from a variety of sources. The least attractive arrangement is when a book is sold with a signature ‘laid in’. Oftentimes the signature will be on a scrap of paper, a publisher’s bookplate or a generic plate. There is no implicit connection between the signed paper and the particular copy of the book. This is simply something that the seller has put together to make the sale more attractive. This particular arrangement can, in our opinion, be worsened when the plate is pasted down by the previous owner.
A publisher’s bookplate (pasted in by the publisher)
Sellers do sometimes sell books and signatures in this format for the legitimate reason that they were purchased in that fashion and therefore the connection between the two is created through the provenance.
There is an exception to this rule when the book is published or sold in that particular state. For example, we have in stock a set of Philip K. Dick’s Collected Stories that were signed by way of a signature strip from a cheque. We also have a Murakami limited edition for which the publisher sent the author a group of plates to sign for the limited edition, which the publishers then pasted in. This is common with limited editions. An edge case is when a bookseller requests a number of plates from the author or publisher and then sells them on. We find that these are generally less preferable.
A book signed by way of a cheque (also a presentation copy)
Finally, bookplates are much easier to forge. There’s no risk of damaging a rare book and mistakes can just be binned. We’ve even seen high-quality photocopies of bookplates.
This is of course a matter of taste, but with regard to collectability one should opt for a book signed directly to the bound page or as published (in the case of tipped in leaves).
The final thing we’re going to look at is scarcity of a book in a signed state. If you find that you have the opportunity to be particular about the manner in which a given book is signed, then the chances are that signed copies are not particularly scarce on the ground. The phenomenon of ‘books with added value’ seems to be fairly recent borne most likely from the Harry Potter craze. Publishers wanted to create the next Harry Potter, collectors wanted to buy the next Harry Potter. The publishers printed first editions in huge quantities because the demand was there. Out of the high demand came a demand for collectable copies. Limited editions (both from the publisher and the bookshop) became more common, but also did books with various additions. By various additions we mean signatures from the cover artist, illustrators, and all manner of people associated with the book, additional sketches, dates under the signature and the recipient’s favourite line from within the book written by the author, ephemera from the publication including posters, bookmarks, postcards, bags and all manner of things. The publishers plough so much into marketing the book that the authors do huge tours where before there might be only a couple of signings. So the first editions are signed in huge numbers and are not rarities.
Signed, with a date and line from the book.
Our recommendation with these type of books is to err on the side of caution. You need to ensure that you’re buying for desirability and not for value because there’s a very good chance that you’ll be overpaying. One also has to understand how much value that embellishment actually adds to the book.
By quality I mean the actual standard of the signature. Collectors will often prefer a signature written in a nice pen and not in a hurry. It’s easy to spot a sloppy signature.
The stronger provenance you are offered the better chance you have of being secure in your purchase. Provenance doesn’t mean a good story to go with the book, it refers to evidence supporting the book’s reported history.
The important thing to note with provenance is to not be fooled by it. We were recently offered a signed T.S. Eliot book, the book was presented with a letter of provenance. It was a great story, the dates and association all lined up, there were associations with editors of magazines that Eliot wrote for and the names on the inscription all were accounted for – even the date had corroboration. However, the signature felt wrong as did other signatures for that the seller was offering. It was such a complex ruse too that holes appeared. The point is that it was so confidently presented that it was difficult not to believe the provenance.
Limited Editions from the publisher are pretty much guaranteed to be authentic, but are not always more valuable than signed first editions, particularly when printed in runs of 1000 or more. The provenance here is inherent.
A signed limited edition
Things such as ticket stubs, photos of the signing or promotional material can help, but these are not a sure fire way of guaranteeing an authentic signature. Of late, holograms have been used to authenticate a book as holograms are difficult to forge. While this pretty-much guarantees that you’re getting an authentic signature, it also suggests that the book was signed at a mass-signing, which to some extent reduces the desirability.
Similarly, a history of the book at auction, doesn’t guarantee authenticity, but it does suggest that someone with a great deal of experience has looked at the signature and deemed it authentic. The same can be said with Certificates of Authenticity. These vary from a hand-written note guarantee to a full-blown holographic certificate from a reputable company. All the latter says is that someone has deemed the signature authentic and perhaps even guarantees that should it be proved inauthentic the buyer will get their money back. The problem is that it’s very difficult to prove a signature inauthentic. Often, experts in the trade will be asked their opinion to examine a purported forgery, which brings me back to my point of asking a member of the trade in the first place.
Another good bit of provenance is catalogue descriptions of the book’s previous sales, or receipts etc. from a previous seller. This chain of sales constitutes a good bit of provenance and again shows that experts have examined the book and deemed it authentic.
Many dealers will help you examine a signature, but the best way to attract these services is by becoming a customer and creating that relationship with the seller. You then have someone you can rely on for help and advice, who in turn can refer to their colleagues in the trade.