Like kisses and cars, everyone remembers their first Wisden – and few people stick at just one. Who does not feel the thrill of dipping into an ancient volume and reading of tales, famous or obscure? I still recall the delight when I bought the 1977 Almanack, looked up what Essex were doing on the day I was born, and saw that, not only did a young G. A. Gooch, my boyhood hero, make a century, but their opener, who made 40, was my future form tutor, M. S. A. McEvoy.
As a Wisden collector, though, I am a rank amateur, with a set going back no further than 1950. I look with envy at those who own eight yards’ worth of Almanacks, from the fragile early softbacks, through the chocolate hardbacks, the salmon-pink cloth covers and, since 1965, the familiar yellow and brown dust jackets, whose colouring always makes me think of streaks of yeast extract over the lid of a Marmite jar.
To build a full collection now, especially in good condition, is costly. Tim Knight, of Knight’s Sporting Auctions in Norwich, estimates a complete set would cost £300,000, but could fluctuate wildly, depending on quality. “Condition is everything,” he says. “I’ve seen 1900 hardbacks differ by a couple of thousand pounds.” Knight says the type of book also matters: “In 2008 we sold an 1896, the first year Wisden was in hardback, for £22,000. Exactly the same book with soft covers can be bought for a few hundred.”
Sir Tim Rice, the lyricist, bought a complete set from Surrey cricket bookseller John McKenzie in the early 1970s for £750, using what he calls “my ill-gotten gains” from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “I was fairly relaxed about such a serious investment,” he says now; the Sunday Times described the purchase as “little short of insanity”.
Few in those days cared about collecting a shelf-load of reference books. McKenzie had bought his own full set at Sotheby’s a year or two earlier for £420. “I keep them out of sentimentality,” he says. “They’re the only ones I won’t sell.” He was aware of one set around that time, not complete but with every Wisden from 1879, going for just £66.
“People just didn’t want to know about cricket,” McKenzie says. “Booksellers would store them in warehouses.” In 1981, after the Wisden market started to boom, he optimistically tried to sell an entire set for £10,000. “I couldn’t get a bid. Now you can get that for one edition.” His 2012 catalogue featured a rebacked 1869 for £18,000, an 1866 with original soiled wrapper for £12,000, and a 1916, which contains the obituaries of W. G. Grace, Victor Trumper and the poet Rupert Brooke, for £8,000.
The first Wisden cost one shilling. The same book would now set you back at least £20,000 – or almost £180 a page. The 1875, which had a shorter print run than previous years, is also highly cherished. Wartime Almanacks are at a premium, especially 1941, when only 800 hardback copies were printed. Of the post-war years, 1971 can sell for up to £100 because fewer copies were printed: a paper shortage didn’t help, but it was also thought England’s series the previous summer against a Rest of the World XI, who stepped in for the ostracised South Africans, would entice fewer readers.
The Wisden market peaked from 2004 to 2009. “That was very buoyant,” Knight says. “It has maybe dropped a little, but the market is holding up well. If anything is recession-proof, it may be Wisdens.”
The collectors are a curious fraternity: obsessive, pernickety and knowledgable but also, in the main, supportive of each other. Many seasoned collectors mentor newer members of the tribe, helping them to understand what to pay and where to find rare editions.
Chris Ridler started collecting in earnest in 2005, when a family member gave him a 1950 hardback to supplement a collection he had built back to 1976. Early on, he sold some shares and went to an auction with £60,000 to spend. “I was outbid on everything but an 1891,” he recalls. After that, he made it his business to study the market properly. “The most important part about collecting is knowing which books are rare,” he says. He also advises never to buy a hardback after 1965 without a dust jacket: “You’ll only end up buying the original one day, and then have a spare that no one wants.”
Ridler completed his full set in September 2010 with the purchase of his second 1875 copy. He had sold the first, when there were still a few gaps in his collection, for a record eBay price of £15,000 to fund a website, www.wisdenauction.com, where collectors can seek and trade copies. He upgrades his copies when he finds better-quality ones. “I went from paperbacks to hardbacks, then to those in top-notch condition,” he says. A lot of the early ones were rebound, and Ridler is ten original covers short. “They were really fragile,” he says. “The books were only 1cm wide and they fell apart.”
He envies those who started earlier and could get bargains. Ridler, who has studied dealers’ catalogues going back 35 years, says that in the early 1980s one dealer sold a softback 1896 for £65 and a hardback of the same year for £90. “Today a paperback would be worth £400 and the hardback £25,000,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to be the person who chose to save £25.”
One of his favourite copies is from 1941. He had been bidding on this rarity on eBay but, as the auction neared its end, he had to attend an antenatal class. Asking his mentor to help out, Ridler instructed him to go up to £650 and was delighted to win the auction for £620. The book was then lost in the post.
Devastated, Ridler did at least get his money back, but for his next birthday his wife, Catherine, found another copy as a surprise present. The record fetched at auction for a 1941 was £2,300 in 2007, but Ridler will not sell the copy his wife bought, even though he has since acquired a better-condition one for £1,200. Ridler needed a friend again to complete his set: he was umpiring in a club match as the 1875 edition was auctioned. At tea, he switched on his phone to discover he had paid £12,000. An 1875, rebound without covers, sold in December 2012 for £22,500.
Sometimes people pay a premium for sets with special provenance. Sir Pelham Warner’s bound set, given to him by Wisden – the company – as a wedding present, sold for £7,800 at auction in 1980, while W. G. Grace’s set of the first 38 Wisdens fetched £94,000 in 1996. The set in the MCC library was acquired in 1944 from the estate of Sir Julien Cahn, the eccentric philanthropist, who had been given the books up to 1931 by cricket historian F. S. Ashley-Cooper.
Occasionally you come across individual Almanacks that once had an important owner. The most famous is E. W. Swanton’s 1939 edition, stamped “not subversive”, that sustained him for three and a half years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and is now in the Lord’s museum.
Ridler’s collection includes editions owned by John Arlott (1864) and George Duckworth (1933), a 1936 signed from Wilfrid Brookes to Norman Preston (the seventh and tenth editors), and a 1941 signed from Hubert Preston (the ninth) to a young Reg Hayter, the cricket journalist.
There are Wisden collectors all around the world. Darren Harold from New Zealand says the internet has made it possible for him to build a collection, although the postal costs are immense. “Being overseas, I can’t just pop into a second-hand bookshop to browse, and there are very few Wisden collectors in New Zealand, so most of my buying is from the UK,” he says. Like Ridler, he uses a mentor.
Harold admits that, when he was young and devouring biographies of his favourite cricketers, he had no interest in the Almanacks: “I figured Wisdens were bed-time reading for British anoraks. But one day I flicked through a copy at a book sale. I was hooked – the words brought contests to life.”
He began his collection with a boxful bought off an elderly man who was going into a rest home, and he now has a complete set back to 1921. He is less worried about quality, though. “It’s about the cricket for me, not the cover,” he says. The oddest volume he owns is a 1963 centenary edition bound in psychedelic pink.
Everyone has their own motivations for building a collection, but perhaps the most important advice Ridler can give a collector is to actually read the books, which he does regularly, even taking them on flights. “After completing my set, I picked up my 1864 and started to read it,” he says. “It was quite nerve-racking to open a book that cost £11,000, but it seems a waste just to keep them on the shelves.”
From the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2013 and www.wisden.com