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Collect Art: One Book at a Time

Victoria Lewis

The concept of “art collector” has always held a weight historically associated with aristocratic patrons and, more currently, billionaire financiers. And in a moment where art prices are at all time highs—the November 2013 sale of a Francis Bacon triptych set the record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction with a final price of $142.4 million—beginning your own collection can seem far out of reach.

Enter the art book. At a decidedly lower price point than the average work found on a gallery wall but with much of the same visual and cultural appeal, these serve as a logical and unintimidating entrée into the world of collecting.

Art has been entangled with book production since the very first pages were created. Early tomes such as the Book of Kells, the Book of Hours and other illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period feature intricate hand-drawn designs and illustrations. But it is William Blake, with his merging of text and drawing, who is credited with fabricating the first modern art book.

And while some of Blake’s works now fetch six figures, the majority of art books on the market are accompanied by a noticeably lower price tag. Collectors of the medium will make the the distinction between “art book” and “artists’ book.” The former is a book cataloging the work of one or multiple artists in reproduction, such as the recent title “Magritte:The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938,” which was published in conjunction with a recent exhibition at MoMA in New York City. An “artists’ book,” on the other hand, is an original work of art realized in the form of a book (or magazine), such as Sol Lewitt’s 1977 photo book “Brick Wall”.

The contents of an art book can run the gamut from a catalog of a 17th-century painter’s lifeworks to a contemporary artist’s etchings. The great thing about a book collection? The “collect ’em all” mentality. Your cache of Dutch masters will play nicely with your Abstract Expressionists, and perhaps look more at home on a wall next to one another than the paintings themselves ever could.

Unlike with paintings or photographs, there is little risk in buying an art book. Will the value increase? Almost certainly (though admittedly not as exponentially as if you were an early investor in the Andy Warhols or Damien Hirsts of the world), as books eventually go out of print and become more difficult to track down. Auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s regularly host book auctions where some rare titles sell for upwards of $50,000. Photographer Robert Frank’s seminal 1959 photobook “The Americans,” originally priced at $7.50, now sells for around $9,000 (or quite a bit more if inscribed), and a 2003 reprint of Bruce Davidson’s acclaimed 1980s book “Subway,” originally on sale for about $60, is now valued between $200 and $400. Seeking out art books also allows you time to develop your tastes and aesthetic without the pressure of large purchases.

It’s not just amateur collectors who have taken note of the importance and value of book collections. With major institutions from MoMA to the Getty Research Institute amassing enormous caches of books and manuscripts in their own dedicated libraries, it is clear that these pieces have a place among the annals of art history. These collections make it their goal not only to catalog and preserve art books but also to make them available for exhibition and artistic and scholarly research.

If you want to build up a museum-worthy collection, condition is key. Martin Amis, a purveyor of rare and limited-edition books in the U.K., advises buying directly from publishers or dealers: “Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40 percent off the price,” he explained to The Guardian. Luckily, this means that displaying your books might just be your best bet for keeping them in archival condition. A well-curated wall or shelf of books can be an excellent addition to your interior design scheme, whether your style leans toward minimalist monochrome or maximalist print mixing. As an added bonus: They’re easy to change out, giving you endless decor options.

So where to start with your collection? Your local bookstore or museum gift shop is as good a place as any. Purchase catalogs of exhibitions you enjoy or volumes on favorite artists. Another great resource, boasts a collection of thousands of titles and excellent curated lists of must-have books for people with interests ranging from Bauhaus to photojournalism. Searching for something a bit unexpected? New York and LA host annual art books fairs in conjunction with institutional artists’ publication emporium Printed Matter.