What Makes This First-Edition of The Great Gatsby So Valuable?

There are several factors that pump up the price of the coveted collectible

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Gatsby First Edition
via The Jones Brothers

A first edition of 'The Great Gatsby' available via The Jones Brothers

You can pick up a new paperback copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for a few bucks at most any bookstore in the U.S. As of last week, for a few more dollars—$15—you can even pick up a copy with a new tie-in cover featuring the cast of the Gatsby movie coming to theaters May 10. But if you want an original first-edition copy of the book, you’ll need Gatsby-level wealth. When sold with its original dust jacket, The Great Gatsby can be one of the most expensive rare books on the market.

A copy went on sale this week via the U.K.-based online rare-book hub The Jones Brothers, and it’s priced at a whopping £125,000, about $194,000. (The site, which serves to connect dealers to buyers, also has access to a few other Gatsby first editions in various conditions, which start at a relatively affordable £90,000.) Another copy sold at Bonham’s auction house in 2009 for a then-record price of $180,000.

“We get quite a lot of queries about The Great Gatsby from people who haven’t read the guide price and they’re quite shocked,” says Jones Brothers proprietor Charlie Jones.

The Great Gatsby came out in 1925, not even 100 years ago, and it wasn’t Fitzgerald’s debut work. So why is the first edition so expensive?

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There are three main factors, says Jones: rarity, cover art and story.

First-edition books are, by their very nature, rare, since publishers often choose to wait and see how they sell before ordering a second print run. Even though a first and a second printing may look nearly identical, an appraiser can tell the difference from the copyright page and date—as well as proofreading errors that are fixed by the time the second printing comes around. With the first-edition Gatsby, for example, one of the most famous “points” is a typo on the back of the dust jacket that spells “jay Gatsby” with a lowercase “j,” over which a correction has been made (by hand) in ink or with a stamp.

Compounding that rarity is the question of condition, since books start their lives as things to be handled, not collected, and are thus exposed to all sorts of wear and tear. The priciest first Jones has listed is, he says, in fine-to-very good condition. (It’s a bit confusing, but “fine” is the most pristine on this scale and “very good” is right below that.) “If you could find one in true “fine” condition, which looks like it’s brand new, you could charge pretty much whatever you wanted,” he says. This copy has a few small tears, some fading, some yellowing and a very small amount of foxing, those brown dots that often show up on the pages of old books.

Plus, in the early 20th century, many of those first copies would have gone to libraries, “where they get ruined straight away,” says Jones, by librarians who remove dust jackets and put stickers on the spines.

(MOREAdventures of a Rare (and Not Very Rare) Book Collector)

And when it comes to Gatsby, “cover art” is really just another facet of “rarity.” The jacket art for Fitzgerald’s opus is one of the most famous book-cover designs of all time. But dust jackets get lost and are easily damaged; though Jones estimates that a first-edition without the jacket might only set a collector back a few grand, he thinks there are probably only five Gatsby first-editions on the market that have their jackets intact.

As for the story, collectors like to have a book they can talk about, and few books match Gatsby in that category. And that’s where the upcoming movie may play a role: renewed interest has already helped paperback and e-book sales, and if collectors likewise have Fitzgerald on their minds, they may step up the hunt for a high-quality rare copy.

In that case, The Great Gatsby prices may rise due to the simplest of reasons: supply and demand.

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