Angus Robb is a senior executive with a knack for turning mildew into money.
“I love nothing better than traipsing around smelly places to find the right book,” says Robb, who wears tailored suits and red-and-green gumball cufflinks. His official title is store director of Asprey’s flagship luxury-gift emporium on New Bond Street in London.
“I wouldn’t stay here if Asprey took the rare books away from my brief,” Robb says in a salon that since 1781 has been celebrated for offering the rich and royal polo-pony bridles, ostrich-skin satchels and walking sticks tipped with sterling-silver badger heads. “We’ve always had an odd, eccentric mix of products.”
For 700 of Asprey’s clients such as the Prince of Wales, investing in blue-chip books is top of that peculiar pile. Robb says the trade in ephemera is a meager $500 million-a-year global market that’s controlled by some 10 book brokers whose wares won’t be found on Amazon.com Inc.’s website.
“Most investors don’t see books as an investment,” Robb says. “But everything today must be monetized.”
Need a pristine first edition of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale?” That would be 21,000 pounds ($33,900). How about an original 14th-century copy of “Cosmographia,” Claudius Ptolemy’s 2nd-century B.C. version of the Michelin Guide? Only two volumes are known to exist. The price: $4 million and perhaps dropping.
“During recessions one usually finds profit from those seeking nostalgia,” the 47-year-old Robb says. “That didn’t happen this time. The market value has dropped about 20 percent since the recession.”
Asprey’s for-profit library greeted its first investors during World Wars I and II. “The wars affected our ability to acquire the silver, leather and other valuable materials we needed to make our products,” Robb says. “So we introduced books. Back then books were the only luxury goods around.”
Robb joined Asprey in 1988 as a specialist in antique furniture. In 2000, he took command of Asprey’s niche carriage trade in books. Almost all of Robb’s customers negotiate with him over the phone or through intermediaries.
“I rarely see my most important clients,” Robb says of the process that adds to the mystery of his passion. “I get a call and head off on the treasure hunt. It can take anywhere from one month to one year to find what they’re looking for.”
Robb says book buyers these days fall into two categories: They’re either seeking something special for themselves or a rare printed treat to offer a client.
“It’s an interesting selection, like a 95,000 pound copy of an 1807 volume of ‘Doctor Thornton’s Flower Book’ or a 19,500 pound first edition of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Robb says. “James Bond is big, too, a sign of the times, I suspect.”
Robb says another significant signpost is Google Books, the Internet library of logorrhea that since 2004 has digested 15 million of the estimated 130 million titles published since the 15th-century invention of the printing press, according to a 2010 Harvard University study by Jean-Baptiste Michel.
“Internet publishing adds to the difficulty of assessing what books, printed today on paper will become the investments of the future,” Robb says. “It’s impossible to calculate the true growth potential of a modern first edition.”
There are exceptions. Chief among them are first editions of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” the opening salvo of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume wizard franchise. “Only 500 first editions of Philosopher’s Stone were printed,” Robb says. “They now sell for between 7,000 and 10,000 pounds. This is a gilt that will go up in price.”
Robb says the Dow Jones Industrial Average of his market includes original volumes written by Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Beatrix Potter, Dickens, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.
Recent market movers -- U.K. art dealer Michael Tollemache last year paid $11.5 million at a Sotheby’s London auction for an original four-volume edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” and Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates shelled out $30.8 million in 1994 for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester” -- are fluky super-events.
Yet the superhero market remains robust, particularly for those who invested in an original copy of Action Comics 1. Published in June 1938 for 10 U.S. cents, the story that launched Clark Kent’s career sold for $317,000 in 2009. In February 2010, a copy of the comic book featuring Superman’s first adventure anonymously changed hands over ComicConnect.com for $1 million. A month later, it fetched $1.5 million.
“Some of our clients are interested in comics,” Robb says, his red eyebrows arching at the prices. “It’s a very niche market.”
What Asprey lacks in quantity -- it currently has only 650 books in stock -- it makes up in variety and controversy. Offerings include a 900 pound sketchbook of bawdy 1935 drawings called “Caricatures of Lloyds of London” that was popular among investment bankers looking for a holiday gift.
The storm comes in the wake of Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben’s decision to have NewSouth Books roll out a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” to foster political correctness among new readers of the American classic.
“Overly precious,” is how Robb describes U.S. euphemism police sanitizing Twain’s passages, descriptions that nonetheless continue to accurately mirror 19th-century American attitudes. “Expurgating Twain’s words in all new editions will only increase the value of the old editions.”
For Robb, the cascade effect of the U.S.’s Huckleberry Finn controversy is palpable and sitting on the Edwardian table in front of him. It’s called “Negro.”
It was published in 1934 by Nancy Cunard, the daughter of luxury-passenger-line owner Bache Cunard. Robb describes the 855-page book as a “monumental anthology of commentary and articles on many aspects of black life, culture and politics.”
Dedicated to the black American jazz musician “Henry Crowder, my new Negro friend,” Cunard’s coffee-table-sized tome is perhaps the earliest historical compilation of the treatment of blacks globally. The pages of “Negro” include rarely seen offerings by Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams and W.E. Dubois.
The 5,800 pound book, in which the N-word pops up with the frequency of a rap song, comes with maps, sheet music, essays, photographs and the observations of black boxing champions and the singer Josephine Baker. Playwright Samuel Beckett provides an English translation (accompanying the original offensive monkey drawings) of Frenchman Georges Sadoul’s “Sambo Without Tears.”
“Nancy Cunard was a rebellious lady for her time and she published the most socially incorrect book of that time,” Robb says. “This is a groundbreaking book and it’s the only one known to still exist.”
Robb says most of Asprey’s literary treasures lead a calmer shelf life. “A few weeks ago I peddled my bicycle out to Chiswick on a Saturday night to find a collection of Russian ballet programs,” he gushes. “We sold it for 7,000 pounds to a private client who collects ballet books.”
Information: Asprey, 167 New Bond Street, London W15 4AY. http://www.asprey.com or tel. +44-207-493-6767.