Sexist dinosaur or suave super-spy? Two-dimensional bigot or awe-inspiring action hero? Ever since Ian Fleming published Casino Royale in 1953, the book’s star agent, James Bond, has divided opinion.
When Fleming’s spy novel was launched, most reviewers raved about the brilliance of his new creation, and the first print-run sold out in under a month. Other critics dismissed Bond as ‘infantile’ and ‘cretinous’. Love him or loathe him, for nearly seven decades in books and on the big screen, Bond has provided an antidote to the mundanity of the daily nine to five.
Bond’s allure means that hardback first- editions of the spy thrillers fetch staggering sums. In 2019, Scottish auction house Lyon & Turnbull sold a first-edition of Casino Royale for a record-breaking £55,000. Rare-book dealer Peter Harrington recently marketed an exceptional Fleming collection, which included inscribed first-editions of every book published in the author’s lifetime, as well as personal notebooks and other ephemera, for a breathtaking £2.5m.
Why did James Bond books become popular?
John Atkinson, a rare-book seller based in Harrogate, who specialises in books by Fleming and other 20th-century literary greats, explains the enduring appeal of Bond, ‘In 1953, when the first Bond book was published, Europe was emerging from a world war. It was a pretty drab and dismal place. Sugar was still rationed. In a grey, socially conservative world, Bond was colour and pure escapism. The interesting thing is that he’s lasted three generations. People still want his life now.’
Fleming’s own life was filled with danger and intrigue, which adds to the appeal of the books. John Atkinson describes how, ‘Fleming himself was not a typical man of his time. A heavy drinker, gambler and ladies’ man, he threw himself into the playboy lifestyle. Threads from Fleming’s own life are woven throughout the Bond stories.’ After Eton (where he was frequently in trouble for truanting and associating with young ladies) Fleming had a short stint at Sandhurst, but wasn’t cut out for soldiering, so was sent to Kitzbühel in the Austrian Alps, where it was hoped he would improve his languages with a view to entering the Foreign Office.
In Austria he relished the skiing and mountain-climbing and earned a reputation as a womaniser. After failing his Foreign Office entrance exams, he spent two years in the early 1930s as a journalist for Reuters, and travelled to the Soviet Union, before entering the more staid world of stockbroking, where it’s said he excelled at charming clients but was bored by the detail of making money. Recruited by naval intelligence in the Second World War, Fleming was instrumental in creating the Commando unit that successfully captured an Enigma machine. To escape the grimness of post-war Britain, in 1947 he bought a 15-acre estate in Jamaica, and later spent every winter at the villa he called ‘Goldeneye’, writing his Bond books.
When did collecting James Bond books become popular?
After Casino Royale, Fleming wrote 11 more James Bond novels and two short-story collections. Although the publisher Jonathan Cape initially only printed 4,728 copies of Casino Royale, by the time Fleming’s last full-length Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun published in 1965, the first print-run had increased to over 80,000.
Much like in the worlds of stamp or coin collecting, enthusiasts pore over the details of each example, using their specialist knowledge to differentiate between so-called ‘true first-editions’ and subsequent reprints of the first edition (referred to as later ‘printings’ or ‘impressions’) which were produced to meet high customer demand. Minutiae which might seem inconsequential to outsiders (such as a clipped price or the absence of a particular review on the rear panel) also impact on desirability and price.
‘The earlier books tend to be more valuable because they were printed in smaller numbers and so they are much rarer,’ explains John Atkinson. ‘When the Bond books first launched, a significant proportion were distributed to libraries, meaning that early examples in good condition, especially with their dust jackets still intact, fetch a premium. An entry-level copy of Casino Royale, still with its wrapper but ex-library, is going to be upwards of £10,000. A copy in better condition would be at least double, and even up to £60,000 to £75,000 for a fine copy. If it’s signed by Fleming or, better still, has a personal message to the recipient, that’s when the price really skyrockets.’
Fleming was a passionate bibliophile, and over the course of his life built an extensive collection of first-editions on technical and scientific topics he felt had ‘started something’ – zips, nuclear fission, golf, aeroplanes. Given his own knowledge of collecting, he realised that the addition of his signature, or an inscription, would in future increase the book’s value, so he only ever signed copies for personal friends or people he admired. It’s these signed and inscribed copies that now fetch dizzying prices. The copy of Casino Royale that sold at auction for a record-breaking £55,000 set pulses racing because of its exciting, Bond-style inscription: ‘Alastair, from the Author – Read & Burn’.
How much do first editions of James Bond books cost?
John Atkinson is currently selling a collection of Ian Fleming first-editions for £475,000. John admits the price tag has raised a few eyebrows, but explains, ‘They are a complete set of first-edition, first printings in their original dust jackets, 11 of them signed and inscribed. These books are especially valuable, not just because they’re touched by the hand of Fleming, but because they’re connected with intimate moments in his rather exciting life.
For example, the copy of Casino Royale is signed and inscribed to Lisl Popper, one of the girlfriends from his Kitzbühel days and one of three people left £500 in his will. Thunderball is signed and inscribed to Wing Commander Dobson, who advised Fleming on the Vulcan bombers portrayed in the book. It’s these personal connections that make the books really unique – and the closer the relationship between the recipient and Fleming, the higher the price tends to go.’
Collectors determined to assemble all 14 hardback first-editions clearly need deep pockets. Bond fans who are drawn to the idea of collecting a complete set of first-editions, and don’t have thousands of pounds to spare, might look out for examples of mass-market paperbacks, published by Pan in the late 1950s and 60s. Most British readers probably encountered Bond for the first time in these editions, since hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. The lurid cover art of the early paperbacks, featuring an explosive mixture of guns, gambling and gorgeous girls, epitomises mid-century macho Bond style.
The stratospheric prices of the hardback first-editions impact on the rest of the Bond market and a complete first-edition paperback set would still fetch £2,000 to £3,000, despite the high initial print-runs. Even more recent limited-edition Bond books, such as the hardback series that Penguin published to mark the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth, are now worth multiples of their original recommended retail price.
Pan’s first paperback run of Casino Royale numbered 100,000 – subsequent volumes’ print-runs were even higher – so it’s not inconceivable that a first- edition Ian Fleming paperback could be lurking in a dusty cardboard box that’s been consigned to the loft, or sitting forgotten on a bookshelf. But, even if you don’t find hidden treasure, when the latest Bond blockbuster No Time To Die eventually releases, a cinema ticket might provide all the adventure you need…