(Bloomberg) -- Even as independent bookstores struggle to survive, rare books and manuscripts have proven a rare bright spot in the industry.

“It’s almost like two businesses,” says Kenneth Gloss, the owner of Brattle Book Shop in Boston. “As far as the general used-book business, it’s been off.”

His third floor of rare and antiquarian books, though, is doing nearly as well as it ever has. “People are at home, the stock market is doing well, so people with spare funds are sitting home, bored and buying a lot of books,” Gloss says.

The same phenomenon has occurred in categories as disparate as jewelry and classic cars. Rich people are still rich, and they’re still spending serious amounts of money on things that bring them joy—and perhaps, a return on investment later.

The market for extremely rare books has been healthy for years, dealers say, but quantifying its ups and downs is difficult, because “if you’re talking about a book with many comparables over time, you’ve missed the top of the market,” says Darren Sutherland, a specialist in Bonham’s rare books department in New York.

“It’s so anecdotal,” agrees Christina Geiger, the head of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s New York. “Everything depends on the quality of the material.” 

Still, consensus among dealers is that the overall market has sustained itself even as the rest of retail has been thrown into turmoil, and that the peak of the market has soared past many participants’ expectations.

Take a recent folio of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies that just sold at Christie’s.

Known as the “First Folio” because it’s the first recorded compilation of the bard’s works to be printed, the volume was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Christie’s folio had a presale estimate of $4 million to $6 million. After a bidding war between three parties, it sold for $10 million.

“I’m not surprised that we set a record for literature in the pandemic,” Geiger says. “It just does feel like that’s part of the trend of people retreating into their books.”

Even slightly less spectacular items are surpassing estimates.

“If nothing else, we’ve seen an uptick in participation and enthusiasm,” says James Gannon, the director of rare books at Heritage Auctions. Heritage’s third auction of books from the library of editor and publisher Otto Penzler, Gannon says, doubled its estimate.

At Christie’s, “all of our online sales have surpassed their low estimates,” says Geiger. “People have time on their hands to look at online catalogues and spend time more than they otherwise would have online shopping.”

Christie’s isn’t alone in seeing a rise in online sales—not necessarily a given, considering the specific condition issues and concerns of the rare book market. (To take an obvious example, if a book has a damaged page, you wouldn’t know it from an online listing, though every lot comes with a condition report.) 

More generally, auction houses have discovered, to their delight, that home-bound buyers are increasingly willing to spend huge sums online without ever seeing the objects in person. In July, Christie's live-streamed a sale of fine art that totaled $421 million.

“To be clear, the move online had started before Covid,” says David Goldthorpe, the head of the books and manuscripts department at Sotheby’s London. “It was just massively accelerated by it.”

Last month, a 15th century, five-folio compilation of works by Aristotle was estimated from $200,000 to $300,000, and sold, with buyer’s premium, for $475,000 at Christie’s. “It’s fairly specific, and the type of thing I’d normally think people have to come in to see,” says Geiger. Yet the lot sold to an online bidder. 

Even works that previously hadn’t generated much interest have done well this summer.

“We sold a [Ludwig] Wittgenstein letter for $143,000,” says Bonhams’s Sutherland. “Its high estimate [a few years before] at Christie’s was $50,000,” and it failed to sell. “You know how busy things are in modern life,” he continues. “I think, now people simply have more time and space and the wherewithal to pursue [collecting].”

Weak Middle, Sharp Top

The resilience of the top of the rare book market is particularly notable, given the 20-year-long erosion of the rest of the market.

“There’s less collectors and there’s less participation in terms of people coming to book fairs,” says Gannon. “Many [rare] bookstores have closed up and gone to online-only business, and the reason is that people come into the shops, then go online and search for an item and find it cheaper.”

The internet, Gannon concludes, “made a lot of books that seemed rare [feel] common now.”

Take, for instance, a first printing of the first edition of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

A Faulkner fan comes into a rare book store and sees it offered at $11,000. Instead of simply buying it, the shopper pulls up Abebooks.com, searches for other first editions and finds more than a dozen examples at prices ranging from $1,500 to $12,500.

Not only does the $11,000 volume not sell, the potential buyer might question the logic of buying the book at all.

As a consequence, even before Covid, prices for super-rare objects had begun to rise, and prices for everything else had fallen off a cliff.

“When something is truly rare, you could justify that more,” says Geiger.”So you saw an overall trend of expensive books getting even more expensive, and mid-range books dropping in price.”

Premium Product

How should a buyer know if a product is prime? Here’s a hint: Don’t look at the price.

“It could be a $20,000 manuscript that is important within its field, and it could be a $300,000 manuscript that’s important within its field,” Sutherland explains.

And while no single category has done gangbuster business, anything relating to science and math seems to have been doing very, very well during the pandemic. “Wittgenstein, Newton, Darwin,” says Sutherland. “Science has definitely been strong.”

Last week, Bonhams Los Angeles sold a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; estimated between $90,000 to $120,000, it sold with premium for $168,825.

Demand vs. Supply

The only question is whether there’s enough super-rare supply to satisfy demand.

“The hardest part is probably the supply,” says Goldthorpe. “Travel is a part of what people do. They go around looking for rare books—and if you can’t travel, [rare books] are hard to find.”

This, says Gloss of the Brattle Book Store, is of particular concern. “The problem for a lot of dealers is how do you replace stock.”

Sutherland says that’s only a temporary issue.

Once collectors see what buyers are willing to pay, he explains, more material will become available. “There’s lots of stuff out there,” Sutherland concludes. “It’s just a matter of bringing it to the market.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.