The Prices of Books

Book prices title 001H.B.Wheatley’s Prices of Books (1898) is a real eye opener, not just for the prices realised by truly great and important books,  but also for those works which today would not fetch ( in real terms) anything like the sums that our Victorian forebears might have paid.


In view of the stunning Tate Gallery exhibition of works by Blaket hat closed recently, it’s a good time to look at some of his most significant books.


Songs of Innocence and Experience(1789). At the sale of Sir William Tite’s Library in 1874 a copy rebound in green morocco fetched £61. In 1882 a copy from the Library of William Beckford sold for £146.


Today a copy, even in poor condition, would attract a huge amount of attention. In 2001 Christies sold a copy for $941,000 in New York.


At the same Beckford sale a copy of Milton: a Poem fetched £230. Today, there doesn’t seem to have been a copy on the market for many years.


It has already been remarked in a recent post that the grasping Birmingham bookseller Edward Baker was only prepared to pay 25/- for Blake’s debut poem Poetical Sketches,which was not illustrated, but is possibly rarer than most of his subsequent illustrated works.


Robert Browning

Of Browning’s first publication, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833) only eight copies were thought to exist at the close of the nineteenth century. One with an inscription by the author made £145 in 1896. Though Browning is deeply unfashionable today, the emergence for sale of one of those eight copies would attract attention, though it’s anyone’s guess how much it would make.

Robert Burns

A very fashionable poet like Burns is always likely to attract well-heeled collectors, particularly among Scottish Nationalists. Back in 1898 a good copy of his Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1783) fetched a mind blowing £572!! Compare this price to the £470 paid for a perfect copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1884. Even more astonishing is the fact that in 1858 that same copy of Burns sold for just £3. 10s! It’s a mad world.



A copy of his incredibly scarce debut, Poems on various occasions (Newark 1807) sold for £45 in 1896.Today, a similar copy would easily fetch over £12,000.


George Meredith

Who reads Meredith now? Back in 1898 he was very popular and this popularity continued at least until the twenties. The reverence for Meredith towards the end of the Victorian period explains the fact that his Poems(1851) made £17 in 1897.Today,  firsts of the writer’s books have plummeted in value. The Ahearnes ( Book Collecting 2000) claim that in 2000 a copy would cost you $1,500. I, for one don’t believe anyone would be prepared to pay this much.


D.G. Rossetti

The Preraphaelite poet and painter made his poetic debut in 1843 aged just fifteen.

Sir Hugh the Heron : a legendary Tale , in four parts’was published by G. Polidori’s Private Press in Park Village East  ( just south of Camden Town) . The book consisted of just twelve pages, but a copy sold in 1890 for £16.The Ahearnes claim that in 2000 a copy would cost $2,500 to buy. That’s if you could get one!!



The Victorian colossus of art criticism is coming back into fashion. His library is held by Lancaster University and there are coach trips to his former home of Brantwood in the Lakes. The amazingly rare Poems by J.R.( 1850), which was published for private circulation only, runs to 283 pages in octavo and in 1898 was valued at an eye-watering £60. But who knew that Ruskin wrote poems at all? [R.M.Healey]







One thought on “The Prices of Books

  1. Jot 101 Post author

    Meredith is a bit off pricewise but not moribund. His first book of pems (1850) sold at a Sotheby’s book auction in 2016 for $2750 against an estimate of $3000 to $4000. It was signed and with some lines of verse.


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