Hold the front page . . . and the back and inside ones too

Some collectors are born rather than made, and Tim Hughes illustrates this well. As a schoolboy in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he dabbled in old radios, bottles and books, visiting endless auctions, “yard sales” and flea markets. Then, 32 years ago, at an antique show in Philadelphia, he saw a newspaper that had been published in the city in 1826 and was fascinated.

“It cost only $3,” he recalls. “I knew an 1826 coin would cost at least $50, so it was terrific value. After all, with a newspaper you get a half hour’s interesting reading, while with a coin you just get a little chunk of metal and a date.”

Hughes says he was always on the look-out for a collectable that had yet to be exploited. “I had finally found it. Old newspapers were wonderful – like holding history in your hand,” he says.

He began hunting for more vintage newspapers, via collectors’ publications, auctions, flea markets and rare book dealers who dealt in newspapers as a sideline. “I didn’t focus on a particular era, just collected as wide a variety of titles and dates as I could to get some perspective on how newspapers varied through the ages. I was thrilled to find some American newspapers of the 1790s, costing a mere $10-15 each. In time I did find other newspaper collectors, but they were very few and far between,” he says.

Now aged 54 and semi-retired, Hughes has amassed a private collection of 3,500 newspapers, which is valued at about $2m.

“Over the past 30 years prices have risen considerably for early and rare newspapers,” he says. “But the most dramatic rises have been with the most historic issues. The first report of the Great Fire of London in 1666 sells for about $15,000 today – a few years ago it sold for $6,350 and 20 years ago for $900.”

Hughes says that 15 years ago a South Carolina newspaper containing the Declaration of Independence was sold for $3,000. A few years later it was sold on for $14,000.

He acquired a Philadelphia newspaper that contained the Declaration of Independence 20 years ago for $10,000. He says another copy sold in auction last month for $400,000.

“The more historic the event, the greater the demand and the bigger the price rise over the years,” he says. “Less dramatically, a London Gazette from the 1670s used to sell for $9.50 and today it sells for $47.”

Hughes says British papers have always been popular with US collectors as they had excellent coverage of world events from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The London Gazette and The Times are particularly sought after. “And of course American-related events of the 17th and 18th centuries would be extensively written about in British papers because the colonies were British,” he says.

Hughes has many British newspapers and used to travel to London at least once a year to acquire them. “We in the US don’t have newspapers dating back as far as the 1600s,” he says.

His earliest newspaper is a German one, the Warhafftige Neue Zeitung from January 1532, and his most recent is the New York Times of September 12, 2001, covering the World Trade Center attack.

His most valuable is a Pennsylvania Packet from Philadelphia, dated July 8 1776, with a complete Declaration of Independence on its front page. As outlined above, Hughes bought this from a collector for $10,000 about 20 years ago; an identical one recently sold for $400,000.

Great historic events make for highly collectable newspapers: the Great Fire of London, the Battle of Culloden, the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar, the major battles of the American Civil War.

“The same applies to papers carrying reports about famous people such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” says Hughes. “There’s also a worldwide interest in the Wild West and especially for outlaws such as Jesse James and Billy the Kid. All that has been much romanticised by the film industry, in turn generating interest in the newspapers which relate to it.”

He intends to keep adding to his collection. “It could easily provide a nice pension for me, but I’m hoping I won’t have to use it as such. I have plans to take it on tour to libraries and other institutions, so others can see these fascinating items.”

He says the world’s most highly-priced newspaper, should it ever come on to the market, is the very first paper ever published in the US: a Boston paper from 1690 quaintly called Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick.

“It published for a single day only, without authority from the royal governor who had the copies confiscated and destroyed.

“Only one copy is known to exist, and it is in the Public Records Office in London. Now that can truly be considered a priceless newspaper,” says Hughes.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.