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Unloved Antiques: Those Stacks of Old Books

by Mike Wilcox (01/30/12).

How can one get an idea of what granddad’s books are worth? Is it even worth researching or having an appraiser examine them? Just like every category of antiques and collectibles, there are some basic guidelines.

In today’s example of an Unloved Antiques, let’s look at something nearly everyone has, almost never throws out and are often thought to be quite valuable. Old books. I’m as guilty as anyone, as my home is filled with books I’ve bought, borrowed or inherited over the years. Hundreds of pounds of them stashed in book cases, on coffee tables, under the furniture, in boxes and large plastic bins in the basement.

Most, to be perfectly honest, I’ve not looked at in years, except when looking for more room for yet more books that have taken over the living room, bedroom and kitchen (cookbooks seem to reproduce in the kitchen).

To most of us, books are a bit of a mystery as far a value goes. We all see and hear media reports of some rare book selling for the price of a villa in France, after lying undiscovered in Aunt Winifred’s bedside table drawer since 1947. But the truth is, even books that are more than a 100 years old often sell for less than the cost of coffee and donut. Yes, you read that right; the majority of old books are often only worth a couple of dollars apiece. At auction today, most 19th- to early 20th-century hardcover books are regularly by the boxed lot for $20.

This “Decorum & Dress Etiquette Book” from 1880 sold for $58 on eBay in 2010. The value of this book is more for the content than as a book.

So, how can one get an idea of what granddad’s books are worth? Is it even worth researching or having an appraiser examine them? Well, in the case of anything you are not sure is valuable or not, one really should call in the experts, but there are some basic guidelines. There are many ways that publishers identify books as a first edition, the examples that appear most often are as follows and can be found in most books on the publishing and copyright page, generally found on the first few pages of the book. One should look for the following:

• First if the rule of “firsts”—look for words such as “First Printing,” “First Published,” “First Impression” or “First Edition.”
• A line of numbers like this: “9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1” (the number one missing would indicates a second edition).
• There is no listing of later printings on the copyright page.

If you find something similar to what’s listed above on the copyright pages, it could indicate it is a first edition and is worth looking into its value. Even with first editions, there are basic guidelines for value. With books value, the next indicators are just about always “author, inscription and condition*,” meaning that values for signed, first editions of a book in very good condition by a famous author trump most other factors. The only other factor that would best the first edition guideline for a book, regardless of the printing or edition, would be a provenance to a very famous person. A good example would a family bible belonging to the family of famous outlaw Jesse James. With a genuine provenance to his family, the value of what would normally be an $80 common, mass-printed 19th-century bible can go to more than $3,000.

A modern example of the first edition “author, inscription and condition” guidelines in action would be, say a signed, first edition of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” published in 1974. In today’s market, many antiquarian book sellers list this one at as much as $7,500, but in comparison, an unsigned 1983 printing in “as new” condition often lists for less than $75. Further down the chain, a “book club” or very late reprint of the same book in good condition can sell for as little as a couple of dollars.


* The various conditions normally used by book sellers to describe books are listed as can be seen below:

As New: Means just that; flawless right from the store.
Fine: Close to the condition “As New,” but not as crisp. Still, there must also be no defects.
Very Good: Describes a used book with some small signs of wear but no rips or tears on either binding or paper. Any defects will be noted in the description.
Good: An average used and worn book that still has all pages or leaves. Any defects will be noted in the description.
Fair: Describes a worn book that has complete text pages including maps or plates, but may be missing end papers. The binding will generally be worn in spots, and any defects will be noted in the description.
Poor: A book that is so worn that its only rates as a reading copy with a complete text, but it could have missing maps or plates, exhibit loose joints or bindings. These examples also tend to be scuffed or stained, and any defects will be noted in the description.
Ex-Library: Former library books must always be listed as such no matter what the condition of the book. Any defects will be noted in the description.
Binding Copy: Is a book in which the pages are perfect, but there could be damage to the binding or the binding could be missing
Book Club Editions are always listed as such regardless of the condition of the book.


Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting
Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible
Unloved Antiques: Old Books

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.


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2 Responses to “Unloved Antiques: Those Stacks of Old Books”

  1. “Unloved Antiques” is a catchy title with truth. Yet the higher truth is that these antiques are not loved in the numbers they once were. I prefer to believe that quality vs quantity of appreciators will continue to bring untold pleasure in depth., although many, many treasures find an early grave.

    I became a dealer in a small-town antiques mall (a book in itself)to justify my love of objects and a compulsion to rescue the beauties that were cracked, chipped, wounded.
    Is this a projection? Definitely! I’ve seen things in the dump, where we can’t take, that move me as deeply as the sight of abandoned children or dogs moves others to compassion. I’m sure you understand.

    Thanks so much for this site.

  2. Mike Wilcox says:

    Thanks for your thought and kind words. Most of us in the business are “Closet Collectors”, often keeping things with little intrinsic value because they move us in some way. Too often value is sold as the “be all and end all”, if you love the item that’s all that should matter to a collector.

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