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Poetry and profits rhyme for owners of rare editions of Heaney

Last summer a lady drove into Mullen’s yard, Laurel Park in Bray, with a car trunk full of books. Auctioneer Stuart Purcell was in the process of consigning for his collection auction.

He walked out to the car and examined them, quickly realizing that they were not suitable for auction. “No,” he said, “there is nothing for me. Sorry, we were unable to do business today. Then something caught his attention. He released a limited edition of Seamus Heaney’s North. Play!

Poet, playwright and translator, Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. His poetry, now on the Leaving Certificate, is widely known and highly regarded.

Heaney’s sonnet, When everyone else was away from mass, was chosen as Ireland’s favorite poem for the past 100 years via RTÉ’s 2015 A Poem for Ireland poll. His books are highly collectable and volumes of his poetry fetch high prices.

A copy of Death of a naturalist, London: Faber and Faber, 1966 (first edition third printing), is currently on sale at De Burca Rare Books for € 1,350; a first American edition of Station Island, New York: Farrer, Straus, Giroux, 1985, costs € 1,250; a copy of Door in the dark, London: Faber and Faber, 1969 (first edition, second print) costs € 1,350.

All are signed by Heaney who was generous with his signature to the point that, anecdotally, he once noticed that the unsigned copies were more valuable. In fact, his signature adds value to a book. “This increases the price by at least 50 pc,” Purcell explains. “In some cases, that would double the value.”

The work of unknown or emerging poets is usually published in very small editions. If this poet becomes famous, these first editions take value. While Death of a naturalist was Heaney’s first large published collection, it was preceded by a pamphlet: Eleven poems, Belfast: Festival Publications (1965).


A copy of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966 first edition third printing), is currently on sale at De Burca Rare Books for € 1,350

A copy of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966 first edition third printing), is currently on sale at De Burca Rare Books for € 1,350

There are three separate prints, or numbers, of the book, with subtle differences between them.

The first is the rarest, identifiable by a nine-dot sun motif printed in purple on the front of the cover. At the time of writing, two copies are being offered for sale on Abe Books, each costing just over $ 11,000. These rarities aside, all the volumes dating from the beginning of Heaney’s career will be of interest to collectors.

In 1981, he became a professor at Harvard, where he taught part of the year. This allowed him to devote more time to writing and as his reputation skyrocketed so did the size of his prints. As a result, volumes prior to 1981 are generally rarer and therefore more coveted than those which followed. The condition has a great influence on the value of a book. It’s always like that.

Any poet worth his salt knows the market value of collectibles, and many produce limited editions throughout their careers.

Heaney was no exception. For collectors, the pursuit of obscurely published and beautifully produced limited edition volumes is what adds spice to their hobby.

Some are well known. The door is open, which features an essay and two poems by Heaney, was published by the Irish Writers’ Center, Dublin, in 2005, to commemorate the death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz the previous year.

In total, 275 copies were printed and signed by the author. One of them is currently being advertised by Peter Harrington, a London-based bookseller, for £ 1,000 (€ 1,186). Others, like the copy of North who ended up in Mullen’s parking lot, are almost unknown.

The collection was first published by Faber and Faber, London, in 1975. Six years later, additional sheets of the first edition were discovered in the warehouse.


Rare edition of 'North' sold for € 3,200 at Mullen's last month

Rare edition of ‘North’ sold for € 3,200 at Mullen’s last month

Rare edition of ‘North’ sold for € 3,200 at Mullen’s last month

There was enough to make 25 copies which were produced by Brian Dickson in 1981, specially bound with a handwritten colophon sheet signed by Heaney. This particular volume reached € 3,200 at Mullen’s last month.

In general, old books are unlikely to make a lot of money, but Heaney is an exception. “It’s a seller’s market,” Purcell said.

“There are probably more such volumes on the shelves of people across the country. They don’t look like much at all, the owners may be old people, and their loved ones may not know the books are there.


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