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Meet Nicholas Worskett: Printed Books & Manuscripts Specialist

Nicholas Worskett: Printed Books & Manuscripts Specialist, Sussex

Before lockdown, Bellmans launched a new London office, nestled in the heart of Mayfair opposite Claridges. The exciting new space is sistered by our team of specialists in our Sussex saleroom, where Nicholas Worskett, our Printed Books & Manuscripts Specialist, pores over the books before they go to auction.

Nicholas is currently navigating the thriving online auction world. Indeed, the majority of his work has moved online during lockdown. Before the pandemic, people would visit Bellmans to view the books and maps prior to the sale, which made it easier to gauge the popularity of a sale before it went up for auction. Now, with the vast majority of books being sold online, it’s a bit more difficult to predict how well they’ll perform. 

Some things are perennial, though - nostalgia is a big force in book collecting. Key parts of the market have always been children’s books and modern first editions. “Perhaps the most notable example is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed in 1998 and they retailed for £9.99. Now, a good copy can raise in excess of £30k at auction. That’s an increase in value which is probably unprecedented.”

The trends in book collecting and sales have shifted over the decades. Twenty or thirty years ago natural history books and colour-plate books were an important part of the market, along with travel and topographical books, but now the demand has decreased in these areas, which a few exceptions (books relating to China, for instance). Maps are still popular, however, if they are decorative (it always helps to have a few sea-monsters): “We sold a John Speed map of Sussex for £650 in our July sale which was a strong price for a map which isn’t particularly rare. They’re very popular because, in addition to their enormous decorative appeal, they contain so much historical information.” 

Another key area of collecting are books which are important in the history of science, particularly ones that represent an important scientific advance. Darwin’s Origin of Species, first published in 1859, is considered by many to be the most important science book ever published, and certainly in the same league as Copernicus’s ‘De revolutionibus’ (1543) and Newton’s ‘Principia’ (1687). Although it’s an unremarkable looking book, a first edition of Origin of Species can sell for in excess of £100k. 

“Books represent remarkable good value, since it’s possible to pick up one from the 16th century for just a few hundred pounds. There aren’t many other areas of collecting where that would be possible. It is estimated that by 1500 there were already 10 million printed books in Europe, so age alone is not a guarantee of value. But the vast majority of books have a very small value and eBay has distorted these a little, and people’s perception of value. “Auction houses are still the best place to buy rare, collectable and antiquarian books,” Nicholas says. “Since people are far more clued-up about what comprises value these days it’s almost impossible to discover a rare or valuable book which has been overlooked in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop, and there’s also the obvious moral dilemma when you do find something special in a charity shop - because you’d be denying the charity the money.” Nicholas advises his local Oxfam shop in Horsham, helping them identify hidden gems which they sell on their website rather than on the open shelves of a particular branch. 

Nicholas always knew he wanted to work in the arts in some capacity, and after studying English at Oxford, he found his first auction house opportunity in a lowly administrative job at Bonhams. He later interviewed for a role in their book department where he spent two years learning how to catalogue books. 

He moved on to Christie’s South Kensington as a Junior Specialist in the book department, where he spent 17 years and eventually became head. He has many anecdotes to relate from these days, but two will suffice. He was sent to a a very unpromising derelict hunting lodge, overrun by sheep, in the far north of Scotland where, in a kitchen cupboard, he discovered a treasure trove of Winston Churchill first editions inscribed to Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air, in WWII. Another surprising find was made when he visited a house in the Channel Islands and found, hidden away in a room that contained nothing other than worthless paperbacks, a first edition of Origin of Species which went on to sell in London for £50k.

For at-home and online valuations of printed books and manuscripts, get in touch with Nicholas today: nicholas.worskett@bellmans.co.uk