Rare Tolkien Books & Collectables



Rare Tolkien books refers to first and early printings of the very first version of his books, the first time they were ever available to the public.  They have never been out of print and have since been printed in many new editions over the decades. While these newer versions can be collectable and many are now out of print, the first editions remain the rarest if in good condition.  Tolkien is now so popular, any edition of the books, in any language are collected. Read our guide to learn more.  This will be available under the resources tab.

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Condition is key with Tolkien books as with all contemporary collecting.

When it comes to collecting rare and first edition copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books their condition is vitally important. A first edition “Lord of the Rings” set in fine condition, for example, can be worth thousands of pounds more than one in poor condition.

We are experienced dealers and we know that the range of collectible J.R.R. Tolkien books is well established. The best examples of his books have already been on the market and are tricky to find. Therefore, it is not advisable to wait for a better copy of a book to appear, because it probably won’t. If you like an item and you can afford it, then buy it! “Festival Art and Books” currently has a first edition copy of “The Hobbit” for sale complete with its original dust jacket, the only such example available in the world. We also have ten first edition sets of “The Lord of the Rings”.  If you would like to speak to us about any of the items, email markfaith@festivalartandbooks.com.

Condition, Condition, Condition!

As Tolkien book collecting grows in popularity, the availability of collectible/investment original condition books and jackets disappears.  It is not just the printing/edition that matters to the value, but that serious collectors want only the best condition. Books with damaged jackets or even no jackets at all, are now increasing in price, driving up the price of complete and better condition copies.  You could have a poor copy worth only £200 or a fine copy worth £5,000.  That’s how important condition is to value. You should always buy the best you can afford original jackets, early printing and very good or better.  Unlike other genre’s, the market for Tolkien early editions is quite mature and well established. It is not a matter of waiting for a better copy to come along. There aren’t going to be any! There are no more hiding in the attic or charity shops.   People sell off their more worn copies when they upgrade and now leave their collections to their children.  We’ve been a specialist dealer for 20 years. Some examples that were plentiful just two years ago are now completely gone or only the dregs appear.  As time goes on, you’ll pay more money, for less condition. First editions The Lord of the Rings and Hobbits remain the most in demand.  If you like it, can afford it, then buy it while its available!

About Impressions and hardback dust jacket Wear

Impressions is the same as printings from the old technology of printing presses making an impression on the paper Everything is now digital and modern first printing books have a 1 in the number line to indicate first edition. Text changes can be made mid-printing by computer if they want, unlike older books which required re-setting the press. The printing in newer books can be considered print runs, when they sold out, they pushed a button to print more. This 1 is removed on the next print run, so 2 is then the lowest number.  If there have been new printings, they will add the number 11 etc, so 10 numbers will still appear on the number line. With older books you have the edition by year and printing.  You refer first the edition then impression number, so 1st/1st, 1st/2nd, 2nd/1st, 2nd/2nd etc.  American editions used the number line system earlier UK.

An important note about ISBN numbers. They are useless to book collectors! The number applies to the original registration of that particular publication, not necessarily the first edition of that book, but they can use the same number for variations like deluxe editions or changes to covers art or artist of the same text of that edition.  For example, there are many variations of books of the 1966 Hobbit which many use the same ISBN.  Publishers also created slipcase sets, as they did with the first LotR sets, where different impressions and ISBN can be mixed together in a new box and not comprising the first printings.

The original three Lord of the Rings books were printed separately, as stocks ran out, they printed more. Both books and dust jacket can be mismatched impressions, though the common re-used jackets are known. Paper and printing were expensive, they were not going to waste paper dust jackets back then.  There are some lasting records from the printers from the mid-1950’s, but not distribution records from the publisher Allen & Unwin. Bookstores could have made their own changes, matching old inventory to new. After all, how often do you check the printing of a brand new book bought today?.  A “set” of LotR was whatever you found of the three titles together in a given bookstore, not necessarily matching the year or printing.  Again, they were expensive fans likely only bought a book at a time as they could afford it, making their set years and impressions even more varied. Some years had two printings. There are probable configurations of impressions in sets of the three titles based on year print runs.  We know this as dealers we have seen hundreds of sets and recognise familiar groupings, even though any is possible.  By the way, they would not have been grouped a later printing of RotK with earlier impressions of the other two, the highest impression in a set is always FotR.  Where you see this, the set has been compiled.

There was never a 111 set you could buy in a shop as they were not printed at the same time or year. By the time, the 1st RotK came out, the 1st FotR has sold out, though you might have got lucky by pure chance and found one in a bookstore.  Only by intention and searching would to have found a 111 set  unless you worked for the publisher. There are probable configurations of the earliest sets of the three books you could buy.  There were also limited slipcases with impression books at that time.  The slipcase came out to encourage buying a set by the publishers, but was very expensive even into the 1960’s. There are American, other countries and international editions also, but these are not as collectible as the British edition even though America was a bigger audience for Tolkien books. British editions were release first so considered the true first editions.

Today, collectors want the earliest impressions of each title, which would have been likely available as a set and for jackets to match the book impressions as well as match in aging and wear. We have noticed serious collectors will pay much more for a uniform aged set. Mismatched colour in the dust jackets simply does not look good on the bookshelf! We coined the term:  Uniform Wear which means all three jackets and books have similar colour, aging signs and paper wear so they present well as a set on your shelf. This does not mean they were bought together, but likely kept togther long enough for the aging to be uniformed between the three books.   FotR was read more often as the first book, so its common the have the other two titles in much better condition and in paper percentage, but usually the colour is still uniform with all three books with age.

Because hardbacks were very expensive, the publishers used cheaper paper. Most of the dust jacket wear is on the spine which was exposed to the air.  Back then, fewer people had central heating in Britain.  The common dampness in British homes led to mould, which in turned discoloured the dust jacket paper, especially the spine. This can range from complete deep brown to white spotting, to fading of the title colours.  The damp also caused bleed from the red cloth book covers to the back of the dust jackets. It also weakened the paper making the jacket spines subject to tattering and paper loss.  The jacket covers are often found very nice; however, the original colour is grey, not beige, or white.  You can tell this by the grey flaps where the price and reviews are.  The rarest sets we have ever sold had light grey dust jackets covers, which by the second edition were dark grey.

Discoloration is inevitable on sets today as evident by the photos posted in my listings, so the damage to the dustjackets paper by tattering or paper loss is everything to one set being more valuable than the next. No two dust jackets match in colour unless they have stayed together a long time. We have always had photos of the dust jackets laid flat so you can see the true condition, we have nothing to hide. Completeness of the jackets is very important to value.  You can think of this in terms of percentage of paper loss 5% or 10% which is usually on the spine ends from being pulled from  bookshelf. Whole sections of paper missing unfortunately reduce the value significantly.  As sets are so expensive, some people have had the paper loss repaired on early sets especially spine ends or top edges and corners. Replacing whole sections like flats or large tear outs is restoration and not as valuable as the original jacket whole.  Finally, digitally printed facsimile dust jackets are being sold which are very cheap.  These add no value to a book set whatsoever compared to a book missing its jackets completely. Do not be fooled by some sellers trying to overprice a less expensive jacket-less book with a fake jacket. This is more than just a deception; it is stealing your money!

Tolkien Book Values

Before the internet the prices of rare books, not just Tolkien’s, were available to the public through dealer catalogues, auction results and some fan clubs. These were generally regional or national and buying a book from the other side of the globe was not common, except for the very valuable, museum standard copies. As information is inherently out of date as soon as it is printed, there could be a variety of prices for the very same book. Historically the most recent, highest selling price became the new benchmark. As regards very rare copies, however, so few came on to the market that values could be seen to jump or fall significantly since the last sale, months or years previously.

As a dealer, the asking price was “priced forward” based on price trends and to allow a discount.  The value was never real-time or fixed in stone, as with all rare collectibles. Prices of unique items are not set by fundamentals laws of supply and demand but are speculative values.  These are established not just by greedy sellers, but mostly by greedy buyers driving prices up. This applies to most markets, not just the book market. Prices rise because people are able and willing to spend more. How often do we hear in the property market that a buyer put in a higher offer? That is not the seller’s fault. Understanding rare book market prices is about understanding the market, especially for particular genres or authors. It takes time and experience for which there is no substitute except to pay others for their experience.

The internet changed two things in the world of books and collectibles. Firstly, one could now see the world-wide availability of items of a certain standard or with particular features. Secondly, one could see current asking prices. With a click of a button, the buyer can instantly see the quality and current price of a title, but also the seller could adjust their prices instantly. It created a “live” market.  This aspect has contributed to a move away from auctions and the reliability of prices at auction. I was asked some time ago by a major dealer “did I adjust my prices real time”? The answer was “of course, why not?”.  For a general rare book dealer with thousands of books in stock, its not practical to adjust prices of individual titles weekly or daily. This has led to specialisation by dealers. The fundamental feature any market in collectibles is that value is only what someone will pay. Trying to determine the current value of a book is now harder than ever.

One of the things I noticed in earlier internet days, when one rare book came on the internet market, five more did at the same time! Suddenly sellers were competing and forcing their own values down due to over- supply, generally by inexperienced new or one-off sellers. Once this flood of copies sold, it was months or even years before the same book came on the market again, and then at a much higher price due to scarcity.  Knowing past market activity and supply is therefore as important as knowing current and predicted market values.

To err on the side of caution in a real time market, sellers price forward their rare stock values more than ever to avoid selling too cheaply.  Why? Not because they are greedy but because to stay in business they have to pay more to supply the same book in an increasingly popular market, often competing with their own customers in a purchase.

This means that for rare books in high demand, the current price is likely to be what they will be worth at some point in the future, demand and supply being consistent in the meantime. Markets in popular collectibles act more like commodity markets as regards price trends, both being volatile due to speculation, but also subject to fundamental forces. Both buyers and sellers can be caught out by the same uncertainty and unpredictability. Sometimes I get a bargain; sometimes I pay too much.  The ability to predict the market is more important than ever. However, knowing what you are buying is equally vital.

The internet has revealed that conventional wisdom about very rare books and their scarcity is not fact but simply knowledge that has become accepted because it came from a good source and has never been challenged. Most information on rare books is based on the printing technology or details provided by the publisher at the time. This is an aid to identifying true first editions but is not necessarily critical to value; it is interesting, but irrelevant. The publishers’ printed descriptions, whose trade terminology was unique to the printing of books at the time, is now redundant. Several good photos can tell you everything you need to know.

Tolkien books are straightforward in so far as publishing details are clearly printed in the books. Certain variations, characteristics or mistakes are interesting, but irrelevant to value. The books are now so scarce that all variations are valuable. What is more critical is the condition, not necessarily the printing or variation.  An older printing in fine condition can be worth much more than an average early printing.   The dust jacket’s condition contributes most  of the value of many contemporary books.  Interesting features and details, whether they are correct or not, are secondary to condition, especially that of the dustjacket. What is important when choosing a particular book and its price is knowledge of market factors, not old-school publishing and book details.

This price focus can be upsetting to traditional dealers, collectors or fans. The commercialisation and commodity value aspects of modern book collecting offend the sensibility of some people, as if it degrades the intrinsic value of the author and his works. I often hear: “that’s a ridiculous price you are charging, I bought mine for £25.00”.  The same could be said about current house prices. No new, younger buyer wants to hear about an old market and how clever you are for being born three decades sooner! It matters only what the price and condition is now and what is likely to happen in the future.

The truth about what people of all ages really want in books or houses, is that they want the price to be low when they are buying, and then for it to shoot up soon after. They greedily want what earlier buyers got by accident but are too impatient to wait or put in the time required to buy correctly.  Book investment may seem like a get rich quick scheme based on temporary market trends, but for most people it takes time and luck in the long term.

What is a Lord of the Rings set?

Professor Tolkien’s now world famous literary masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings” (LotRs) was the long awaited sequel to “The Hobbit”, released in 1937. It originally consisted of five books but was reduced to three to lower printing costs and make it more affordable. The war caused a considerable delay and the author’s search for perfection in his writing exacerbated this.  Even after the 1954 release of ‘The Fellowship of the Rings’ (FotR) he continued to make text changes in the next fifteen first edition printings and on into the second printing of the second edition at which point he was more or less satisfied.

“Two Towers” (TT) and “The Return of the King” (RotK) were subject to the same printings and revisions, twelve and eleven impressions respectively. Hardback books were very expensive in the 1950’s so publishers limited print quantities until they knew the previous print run had sold out.  The three books were not sold as set initially because of the cost. Customers bought them as they were released or as they could afford to. New books were printed as the old ones sold, which gave Tolkien the opportunity to make text changes and corrections for each print run. At the same time the “Hobbit” printings were being amended so that the stories and characters aligned. There are some records of sizes of print runs and the books themselves have their print history recording year and impression on the copyright page.  Accuracy influenced the amount of royalties paid.

From information printed in the books, we compiled a chart of the printing history for each title. It is tempting to group them by impressions/printings or by year but there was a gap of fourteen months between the first FotR and first RotK with reprints of the first two titles also being released. What the printing records reveal is the date and quantity of allocations to bookstores. One can assume distribution must have been close to the print date, but what isn’t clear is how many of each individual title the bookstores were sent and how many they already stocked.  The books and dust jackets look the same and many were sold as seconds (discounted remainders).

If you walked into a bookstore between July 1954 and say July 1956, would have been impossible to know the dates and printings of any set in stock. We can only speculate on the probability of availability based on original print quantities. Contrary to popular belief, the hardbacks were NOT best sellers. Bookstores almost certainly had leftover stocks of books and dust jackets. Three book sets were sold in slipcases in limited numbers: three hundred initially, increasing to five hundred by the 1960s. These sets comprised of books which varied in terms of date and could have been changed by the bookstore owners combining older printings with newer ones to make their own sets.

What we have known as specialist Tolkien dealers for over twenty years is that early first edition sets are likely to comprise three book titles with uniform wear and aging to the books and jackets, indicating that they have always been kept together. This uniform wear, especially on the dust jacket spines, makes sets more valuable to collectors as they look better aesthetically than sets brought together by dealers much later. Within the likely time frame of distribution and subsequent purchase one wouldn’t expect or want to find a 1955 book with a 1965 book. This chart gives an indication of what a set from a given year or set of impressions comprised, but we will never know for sure.

Owners often signed their books back then or applied bookplates, as books were an expensive investment. This signing helps to indicate whether the books were purchased or kept together as a set. In our opinion, this increases the value of sets now, contrary to popular wisdom, as a fan now can appreciate a beloved older set of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ kept together by the previous owner.

“Impression” means the same as “printing” deriving from the old printing press technology which made an impression on the paper. Everything is now digital and modern first printing books have a “1” in the number line to indicate a first edition. Text changes can be made mid-printing by computer if required, whereas previously alterations required re-setting of the press. A “printing” of newer books can be considered a print run; when that run sold out, more could be printed at the push of a button. The aforementioned “1” is removed from the number sequence on the copyright page of the next print run, “2” becoming the lowest (first) number. If there have been new printings, they will add the number 11 etc., so ten numbers will still appear on the number line. Older books show the edition by year and printing stating first the edition and then the impression number: 1st/1st, 1st/2nd, 2nd/1st, 2nd/2nd, etc.  American editions show the number line system earlier than U.K.  editions.

An important point about ISBN numbers is that they are useless to book collectors! The number applies to the original registration of that particular publication, not necessarily the first edition of that book, but they can use the same number for variations like deluxe editions or changes to cover art or artist. For example, there are many variations of editions of the 1966 “Hobbit” which use the same ISBN. Publishers also created slipcased sets, as they did with the first LotR sets, where different impressions and ISBNs were mixed together in a new box and did not comprise the first printings.

The original three Lord of the Rings books were printed separately and as stocks ran out more were printed. Both book and dust jacket can be of mismatched impressions; re-used jackets are known. Paper and printing were expensive, and so dust jackets were not wasted.

There are some existing printers’ records from the mid-1950s, but no distribution records from the publisher Allen & Unwin. Bookstores could have made their own changes, matching old inventory to new. After all, how often does one check the printing of a brand new book bought today? A set of LotR was any of the three titles sold together in a given bookstore, not necessarily showing matching year of publication or printing. Again, the sets were expensive and fans probably only bought one book at a time when they could afford it, making their set’s dates and impressions even more varied. Some years had two printings. There are probably combinations of impressions of the three titles in sets based on year print runs.  We know this because as dealers we have seen hundreds of sets and recognise familiar groupings, even though any is possible. Incidentally a later printing of RotK would not have been grouped with earlier impressions of the other two, the highest impression in a set is always FotR.  Where you see this, the set has been compiled.

There was never a “111” set available in shops as they were not printed at the same time or in the same year. By the time the first RotK came out, the first FotR had sold out, though one might by pure chance have found one in a bookstore. Only by deliberately searching would one have found a “111” set unless employed by the publisher.

The slipcase was introduced by the publishers to encourage the purchase of sets but was very expensive even in the 1960s. There are American and other international editions too, but these are not as collectable as the British editions even though America offered a bigger readership for Tolkien books. British editions were released first and are therefore considered the true first editions.

Today, collectors want the earliest impressions of each title which would potentially have been available as a set and require jackets to match the books’ impressions as well as showing similar aging and wear. We have noticed serious collectors will pay much more for a set of uniform age. Mismatched colour in the dust jackets simply does not look good on the bookshelf. We coined the term “uniform wear” which means all three jackets and books have similar colour, aging signs and paper wear so that they present well as a set on a shelf. This does not necessarily mean that they were bought together but rather that they were kept together long enough for all three to have aged similarly. FotR was read more often as the first book, so it is common to find the other two titles in much better condition, but usually the colour is still uniform among all three.

Because hardbacks were very expensive, the publishers used cheaper paper. Most of the dust jacket wear is on the spine which was exposed to the air. In those days fewer people had central heating in Britain; the dampness common in British homes led to mould, which could discolour the dust jacket paper, especially the spine. This can range from complete deep brown to white spotting, to fading of the title colours. The damp also caused bleed from the red cloth book covers to the back of the dust jackets. It also weakened the paper making the jacket spines subject to fraying and paper loss. The jacket covers are often found in very nice condition; however, the original colour is grey, not beige, or white. You can tell this by the grey flaps where the price and reviews are. The rarest sets we have ever sold had light grey dust jacket covers which by the second edition were dark grey.

About States, Points, Issues and Misprints

The first edition 1955 1st printings of The Return of the King has three variations caused by a print error.  The first two variations were on some hundreds of copies, less common, while the last, text without errors, is the most commonly found. These variations are interesting but have no impact on the value and are not States or Issues at all, just errors.

States, Points and Issues are variations, mostly intentional, not misprint errors, though some can be intentional like a new frontis piece, text change or different illustrations. Where major mistakes are made, they will re-print the book and even if some have been sold. For some antiquated books and manuscripts without copyright pages variations can sometimes help identify true first printings.

For modern books like Tolkien, the first edition is clear and established, usually printed in the book or number line and variations are of interest, only to those people who find them interesting or sellers trying to inflate their values!

For The Return of the King, collecting more than one first edition variation is a waste of money. Condition matters most, not misprints, states and issues. There is a certain type of collector who can’t help themselves by inflating and inventing the importance of variations for their own reasons where none officially exist.  Avoid dealers who do the same as it usually means they are over-charging you.

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