The rare Gandhi-Tagore association copy
One of the most expensive books sold on biblio.com in 2021 was an association copy of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service signed by Ian Fleming to Hugh Hefner (for $61,000). For a serious book collector, an association copy is an ultimate prize, especially if it is annotated. Many consider it the pinnacle of book collecting. So, what exactly is an association copy and how is it different from an inscribed copy?
An association copy is a copy of a book which has been signed and inscribed by the author for a personal friend, colleague, or person of historical significance, e.g. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods inscribed to Terry Pratchett (the pair wrote Good Omens together). In addition to the signature, the author will generally address the person to whom they are inscribing the book with a salutation and perhaps a personal note. This makes the association copy extremely rare, as it is unique. The more famous the author, the more valuable the copy, e.g. Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries by Paul Theroux inscribed to VS Naipaul: “For Vidia, To mark twenty years of friendship—if you only knew how your good influence has kept me on the straight and narrow, with love, Paul”.
Also, a book owned by the book’s author (e.g. Isaac Asimov’s copy of Foundation) or a book owned by someone involved in the book’s production such as the illustrator or publisher (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion inscribed to his editor) are examples of a prized association copy. However, if there is no connection between the two people mentioned in the book (e.g. a copy of The Alchemist owned by Al Pacino), then it is not an association copy.
While both the association copy and the inscribed book have signatures and inscriptions accompanying them, the difference lies in the association copy being inscribed to a person of social significance or of significance to the author, rather than to a random ‘Raghu’ or ‘John’. Sometimes. accompanying materials—an inlaid letter, etc.,—are necessary to identify and establish the provenance of an association copy claim.
The concept of association copies is rather new in the world of book collecting. It was first addressed from a bibliographic perspective, in both A Primer of Book Collecting (1926) and The Elements of Book Collecting (1927). Since then, there has been growing acceptance of association copies in the trade and among collectors. Serious book collectors find them highly desirable because of their significance in understanding the broader context of the author’s work and surrounding period of history, and also because of their comparative scarcity and uniqueness.
I was incredibly lucky to find not one but two presentation copies (a presentation copy can sometimes also be an association copy) from both my heroes—Gandhi and Tagore. A copy of Tagore’s Letters to a Friend (1929) in a beautiful gold-tooled blue leather binding with the Tagore inscription: ‘To Mahatmaji’ and signed by the poet. And Gandhi’s Songs from Prison (1934) with the inscription ‘For Dear Gurudev’ and signed by him. While it wasn’t a bargain, it was every bit worth the price. These one-of-a-kind copies inspire fascination because they bring us a few degrees closer to the personalities we admire.
And finally, a double association copy with an interesting story is a copy of Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux. It was signed to Nick Basbanes, who had donated more than 900 association copies (received from authors in his career as a book reviewer) to the library of Texas A&M University. Knowing of the great admiration I have for the writing of Paul Theroux, Nick chose to pass this copy on to me, assured, he said, with the knowledge that a book that had been so special to him would have a good, welcoming home with me, on my shelves. The message from Paul Theroux to Nick Basbanes reads “wonderful to see you again”. The message from Nick Basbanes to me reads: “From Paul Theroux to me, and from me to you. Books have many lives.”