'Joyce is huge on the international market'


Q&A: DAVIDand AISLING CUNNINGHAM, antique booksellers at Dublin’s Cathach Books, talk to EOIN BUTLER

How long have you been in business?We’ve been here since April 1988. My father was a teacher who had an interest in antique books. He’d go to auctions and do house calls when people were selling. After taking early retirement, he decided to turn his hobby into a business. That’s when my sister Aisling and I came on board.

What kind of customers come through the door?Many just want to buy a gift, so they’ll be looking for a signed first edition. Others might be scholars looking for some very specific book on some aspect of Home Rule, say. We sell stuff on the internet but when they’re buying something of value, a lot of people still prefer to come into the shop.

What’s the oldest book you have?We deal mainly in Irish interest but the oldest is a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, which was the first illustrated history of the world. It was printed in 1493 and is worth about €25,000: a copy illustrated by hand would be worth much more.

What’s the most valuable book in stock?A signed first edition of Ulysses. It was published in Paris in 1922. Only 1,000 copies were done, of which the first 100 were signed by Joyce. This is number 46. It’s worth in the region of €100,000. The world-record price for a work of modern literature was €500,000 for another first edition of Ulysses. It was an earlier number – eight or nine – and it’s inscribed to one of Joyce’s friends.

There’s a letter here from King William of Orange. The handwriting is difficult to decipher but he appears to make provision for a soldier’s widow?Yes, he’s writing to a Mrs Franshaw, whose husband died the previous year at the Battle of the Boyne, about a stipend or pension she applied for. The handwriting is probably his secretary’s but this is his signature: William R.

What are the qualifications required to appraise and sell antique books?We’re members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, so there are standards of ethics and codes of practice you have to follow. You can only become a member once you’ve had a certain number of years experience.

Is there much skulduggery between rival dealers?No. There probably aren’t enough of us to be doing any “skulduggering” I’m afraid, but there’s competition. If you’re at a house sale you might try to ascertain who’d been there before you and what they might have offered.

Any gems ever fall into your lap in fortuitous circumstances?Fifteen years ago there was a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells, dated about 1923. An American customer took it off the shelf and asked how much it cost. Aisling looked at the inside page and told him it was £35 but, as she glanced at the price, she suddenly spotted an inscription we hadn’t noticed before. It was in James Joyce’s handwriting!

Wow, you must have wanted to grab the book back off him?Aisling: Not quite, but I was praying he wouldn’t buy it.

David: Eventually the customer said, “£35? That’s a lot. I’ll have to think about that.”

He left the shop and we immediately grabbed it off the shelf. Lo and behold, the inscription was to a John Healy, who was Nora Barnacle’s uncle in Galway. And it was signed and dated by James Joyce. We subsequently sold it for £3,500.

Aisling: And I didn’t even get a bonus!

Have you ever been sold a dud?David: I don’t think so. You learn a bit in the trade and if you’re not satisfied with the signature you just don’t buy it.

Are there many writers whose handwriting you’d recognise immediately like that? Just the main ones we sell, from Brendan Kennelly on. You won’t get a signed Joyce for under four figures. So you have to be careful.

If you had to rank the great Irish writers as earners, who would be in your top five?Well, Joyce is obviously first and foremost. He’s huge on the international market and has held his value very well. Second, Wilde. We’ve got a few signed first editions of his. Third, Yeats. Fourth, Beckett. He also holds his value on the international market but unless it’s a signed Waiting for Godot,not at the same level. Finally, of course, Seamus Heaney.

It’s amazing how collectable Heaney is, considering his work is of such recent vintage. Heaney is very collectable. Even a signed trade copy of his most recent collection, Human Chain, is worth about €150. The most valuable thing we have by him is this signed edition of Bog Poems, which he published in Queens University. It’s a lovely example of fine printing and binding, with gorgeous illustrations by Barrie Cooke. It’s one of only 150, so it’s worth about €5,500.

Cathach Books is at 10 Duke Street, Dublin 2. rarebooks.ie. See Frank Callanan’s essay from the Dublin James Joyce Journal, in today’s Books pages