“You’re better off buying old books than shares in a bank,” Dutch antiques dealer Laurens Hesselink said with a smile at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“Of course, for some time now the market has been calmer, but our sector always pulls through,” he said.
Hesselink was one of the vendors of rare books to be found in the special antiques section on the sidelines of the book fair, the world’s largest.
“Collectors are insatiable, crisis or no crisis,” Hesselink told AFP.
The Dutch dealer’s favourite of the moment was a volume of “Nippon”, a richly illustrated 19th century work on Japan by German naturalist Philipp Franz von Siebold in 1832, valued at around €300,000 ($400,000).
Picking up a work by the Dutch thinker Erasmus, Kesselink added, “This book is more than 500 years old. At that age, I think we can talk about a solid investment.”
A few metres away, Elvira Tasbach enthusiastically displayed her manuscript collection.
While highly-priced books are likely to remain a safe haven for collectors who can afford it, she said, more modest collectors might take a hit.
“The most expensive works, those that are worth more than €5,000 or €10,000, always sell and their price always rises,” the book dealer from Berlin said.
Tasbach said these include first editions by novelists like Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann, not to mention those by Goethe or Schiller.
“At that level, we are in the domain of luxury, sheltered from economic fluctuations. The more expensive, the better!” she said.
Tasbach’s latest passion is manuals of mathematical calculation – sometimes dating back to the 17th century – which can fetch up to €4,000.
But, according to Tasbach, the lower end of antique book sales will be affected by the crisis: “In the low to medium prices, up to €2,000 per book, sales are decreasing.”
“The traditional clientele for these books is dying. Not too long ago, every university professor had to have a beautiful library full of old books. This is not longer the case,” she said.
Turin-based antiques dealer Guiseppina Biggio specialises in more modestly-priced rare books and is trying to rejuvenate her business in a changing market.
“The period is not easy,” said Biggio, whose wares range from an 1829 treatise on artesian wells for €220 to an Italian manual on fortifications dated 1567, which is priced at €1,800.
“I am especially trying to develop Internet sales,” she said.
But for Tasbach, the Internet itself is to blame for bringing down the price of some rare books, causing a “real crisis.”
For the worldwide web, “has made old books easier to find, and therefore less expensive,” said Tasbach.
“Before, when an enthusiast found a book that interested them, they bought it from me immediately. Now they take the references and bid farewell politely. They go home and look for a better offer on the Internet,” she said.