When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, he wanted to make sure the book was affordable. The first printing of 6,000 copies, each book priced at a mere 5 shillings (about $2 in 1800s currency; about $40 in today’s currency) was sold out by Christmas eve. Dickens received his allotment of presentation copies on December 17, and immediately sent inscribed copies to his close friends and colleagues. Five days later, he ran out of copies. Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall, quickly printed a second and third edition, bringing the total of books sold to 9,000 by the end of the year — a remarkable achievement in Victorian England. Over the next few years, the book went through a total of 24 printings of that particular edition. Unfortunately, due to its high production costs, A Christmas Carol was not as profitable as Dickens had hoped. Bah humbug!
For almost two centuries, Dickens’s “ghostly little story” about redemption and charity has grown in our hearts — and just as significant, has grown in value exponentially. As bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers know, there are many factors that contribute to a book’s value — condition, uniqueness, beauty, quality of binding, history, and inscription and/or signature. The first edition of A Christmas Carol (or The Carol, as it is known to collectors of Dickens’s works) has benefited from all these factors, and hence has consistently risen in value. A true first edition (from the first printing) is generally worth from $18,000 to $45,000. Any edition that was masterfully bound in fine leather and jewels by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the premier bookbinders in London since 1901, is sure to fetch more than $30,000. The value of The Carol skyrockets when you consider the very rare inscribed presentation editions (the ones that Dickens gave to his friends) that range from $50,000 to $280,000. Truly a staggering valuation that would certainly bring a smile to any Scrooge!
A review of auction prices within the last two decades shows how quickly the value of A Christmas Carol has appreciated in modern times. A presentation copy inscribed to poet Thomas Hood was sold at auction in 1997 for $50,000. Just one year later, another presentation copy, this one inscribed to writer and poet Walter Landor sold for $160,000. The most valuable copy, however, was a presentation copy inscribed to William Macready, an actor and close friend of Dickens, dated January 1, 1844, that was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $282,408 in 2010.
As of this writing there are several valuable editions of A Christmas Carol for sale. There is is an exceptionally rare “trial issue” edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1844, worth $45,000. The book has an inscription by H. D. Linton, the brother of W. J. Linton who contributed four wood-engraved illustrations for the book. There are several first editions, without any signatures, selling for about $25,000 and one selling for $11,000. Finally, there is a first American edition, published in 1844 by Carey & Hart of Philadelphia, selling for $30,000.
One of the most expensive editions of Dickens’ timeless holiday story for sale is the first authorized collection edition of Christmas Books, containing A Christmas Carol and four other Christmas novels, that was published by Chapman and Hall in 1852. The most recent price is $81,195. This was the first time that all five of Dickens’ Christmas novels were published together and Dickens wrote a new preface for them. But what makes this volume so valuable is that it is inscribed by Charles Dickens to a young woman, Agnes Sarah Lawrence. The inscription reads: “Agnes Sarah Lawrence, from her affectionate friend Charles Dickens, Twenty Second November 1852.” Agnes was the daughter of John Towers Lawrence of Balsall Heath, an acquaintance of the author. This is a presentation copy of the book, which means that the printer replaced the standard tissue guard that appears at the front of the book with a heavy text leaf, allowing the author to write a personalized note. Furthermore, this book contains the book label belonging to Carrie Estelle Doheny, considered one of the greatest women book collectors in America. Over six auction sales from 1987 to 1989, Doheny’s extraordinary book collection fetched $37.4 million — setting the record for the most lucrative book auction in history.
Certainly, Dickens could never have imagined that his modestly-priced Christmas story would become of the most precious and sought-after books in literature — making him in the end, to borrow Scrooge’s phrase, “a good man of business.”
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Read related posts: A Christmas Carol by the Numbers
The Most Expensive Book in the World
The Most Expensive American Book
The Most Expensive Books Sold in 2012
Words Invented by Dickens
The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2017
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
For further reading: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004)
The Cinderella of the Arts: A Short History of Sangorski & Sutcliffe by Rob Shepherd