You probably have a copy of Phaidon’s Art Book on your shelves. Somehow, the publisher managed to cram 500 pages of great art into a book and then sell it for £20.
Recently, publishers seem to have discovered a new twist on this – big books, but in limited editions. Less ‘print a million, sell ’em cheap’, more ‘print as few as we can, as big as we can and charge as much as possible’.
Only a few years ago, Taschen, keen to show it wasn’t just a budget purveyor of soft porn, produced Helmut Newton’s Sumo, which was so heavy it needed a Philippe Starck-designed table just to hold it. The coffee table book became the coffee table itself (but watch you don’t spill your cappuccino). A quick check on Abebooks.com reveals copies starting at $12 000 (£6000).
Even art books with print runs of a few thousand copies now command significant prices. Damien Hirst’s 1997 collaboration with Jonathan Barnbrook ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere…’ will set you back about $3500 (£1750) for a signed copy (this is for a book that started at £70). Little wonder that Barnbrook himself wishes he had more than two copies.
The variation on the big-equals-beautiful theme is the availability of differently priced editions. You can buy ‘basic’ editions for £1000, rising to £6000 for the signed edition with a lock of the artist’s hair Sellotaped to the endpapers. Ok, I’m joking, but only a little.
These are books destined to say as much about their owners as the books themselves (you’ll need a big apartment to show them off, after all). But if you’re considering investing, check the numbers first. There were 10 000 copies of Sumo printed – that’s not very ‘limited’ is it? Sure, they sold for £6000 each, but you’d be lucky to make a profit when you resell it.
If you’re interested in books as investments, there are other, much smarter ways to do it. A full set of D&AD Annuals is rumoured to be worth £30 000. A copy of Mise en Page – the first ever book on graphic design, from 1931 – is worth more than $4000 (£2000).
But, if you’re looking for a serious front room talking point, maybe these are for you, or maybe they make the perfect present? Just don’t assume that ‘big’ equals ‘collectable’.
Michael Johnson is creative director of Johnson Banks
One to watch out for
John Stephenson at Rocket Gallery, London, specialises in producing limited edition, high-value books for collectors featuring photography by the likes of Martin Parr. Next to be published is a limited edition monograph by the Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen
Publisher – Steidl
Title – Paul Graham: A Shimmer of Possibility
What – A photographic limited edition of 25, consisting of a 12-volume book set (signed and numbered), along with a c-type print by the British photographer Paul Graham. It will be launched at Paris Photo this month, initially priced at £4000, which will rise to £10 000 as the edition sells out.
They say – ‘We print all our own books, and all limited editions go through the artists’ hands,’ says Michael Mack, managing director of Steidl. ‘We work with a bookbinder – in this case Robert Hadrill of Book Works – rather than a designer, to make each book an individual object. We’re still book dealers and we believe in the democracy of the book, but as the book trade has changed so fundamentally (with the arrival of Amazon), we have taken a small step into the art sales arena.’
Best design feature – Each bound volume varies in length, to reflect the shifting nature of the photographic project.
Previous Steidl editions – Then and Now, by Ed Ruscha.
Publisher – Taschen
Title – Walton Ford: Pancha Tantra
What – From the big art book specialist comes this monograph of a wildlife painter, available as a Collectors Edition of 1500 copies, priced £750, and a limited Art Edition of 100 individually numbered and signed copies, complete with an original print created by Ford specially for the book. Measuring 37.5cm x 50cm and priced at £4000, this edition is bound in calf leather with gold embossing and packaged in a calf leather clamshell case.
They say – ‘The art can really be appreciated at this scale,’ says designer Andy Disl. ‘Handling a much bigger space is a challenge, but it gives you an opportunity to zoom in and show a lot of Ford’s details, which tell more of the story.’
Best design feature – The book has 12 horizontal fold-outs and four vertical fold-outs, to create an even bigger canvas.
Previous Taschen editions – Sumo, by Helmut Newton (which came with its own stand); Greatest of All Time – Muhammad Ali.
Publisher – Gloria
Title – New York
What – A dense homage to New York from this specialist ‘luxury’ book publisher, including photography by David Bailey and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and words by Tom Wolfe. The book contains more than a million cm2 of printed material and measures 42cm x 32cm with 756 pages. Prices for three editions range from £1250 up to £6000 for the Columbus Edition of 100 units, in which all the prints are numbered and signed/stamped.
They say – ‘Our books are special in that they are product-driven and are conceived as a sculptural form, rather than just a book,’ says Gloria managing founder Ovais Naqvi. ‘For the New York book, we created something that looks literally like a building, with a case that mimics the glass of skyscrapers.’
Best design feature – A monumental floor-standing case.
Previous Gloria editions – Pele, Superyacht.
Publisher – Thames & Hudson
Title – Magnum Magnum What – A special anniversary volume, commemorating 60 years of the Magnum agency, featuring a chapter of work by each of its members. This is a ‘trade edition’ of 6000, as opposed to a limited edition, but, at 39cm x 32cm and containing more than 400 images, it is a mighty undertaking. Packaged in a simple, elegant cardboard carton with handle, it costs £95, and is published this month. Elegant leaf green endpapers contrast with the textured cloth cover.
They say – ‘It was a simple book to design, although slightly tricky in that we had to pair up images from different stages of each photographer’s career as well as possible,’ says art director Martin Andersen at Andersen M Studio.
Best design feature – A simple graphic scheme lets the pictures – reproduced in colour and duotone – speak for themselves.
Previous Thames & Hudson editions – Tom Ford.