First-edition 'Lord of the Rings' books fetch $150k at auction

Interest in J.R.R. Tolkien items soars as book celebrates 70th anniversary

Cover Image for First-edition 'Lord of the Rings' books fetch $150k at auction
The author's presentation copy was signed by J.R.R. Tolkien and given to Margaret Wiseman. (Credit: Bonhams)

As fans and collectors alike celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first "Lord of the Rings" book being published, two first-edition books from J.R.R Tolkien stole the show in auctions at Bonhams, selling for nearly $150,000 combined Thursday.

The top lot, a 1937 first edition, presentation copy of "The Hobbit or There and Back Again" sold for nearly $90,000. Just 1,500 original pressings of the book were printed, emerging as a premier piece for rare book collectors.

Generally, even the finest examples sell for between $60,000 and $75,000. Yet, this book is in less-than desirable condition, lacking the iconic original dust jacket and showing signs of restoration.

However, as a presentation copy given by author J.R.R. Tolkien directly to Margaret Wiseman, the sister of his friend Christopher, for whom he named his son, it carries particular importance. Additionally, it's signed "Ronald Tolkien," which he reserved only for close friends.

Bonhams also sold a set of all three "Lord of the Rings" books — all first-edition presentation copies signed by Tolkien — for a little less than $60,000. The set of books was also given to Wiseman. Despite lacking dust jackets and exhibiting "crude repairs," the set eclipsed the normal range for first-edition sets, which typically fall far below $50,000.

Less rare than the Hobbit, with 3,000, 3,250 and 7,000 first-edition copies printed respectively, these books are still highly desirable, especially as a set.

The record for the most expensive Tolkien book ever sold belongs to a signed first edition "The Lord of the Rings" dedicated to the "Queen of the Hobbits," Elaine Griffiths, a student and friend of Tolkien's known for her vital role in convincing Tolkien to publish "The Hobbit." That book, inscribed in Elvish, sold for $104,000 in 2008.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.