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Ask A Worthologist Question: Gutta-Percha-Covered Book

by Mike Wilcox (05/10/10).

The Good Shunammite” with a cover made of gutta percha. A copy with some chipping, dings to the corners and other minor defects retail for $500 or more.

The Good Shunammite” with a cover made of gutta percha. A copy with some chipping, dings to the corners and other minor defects retail for $500 or more.

Selma D. found an interesting antique book with a cover unlike any she had seen before. She engaged WorthPoint’s “Ask a Worthologist” service, and it was forwarded to me. Here is Selma’s question:

“I’ve picked up a strange looking book from an estate sale. Its title is “The Good Shunammite.” The cover looks like it’s some kind of carved stone—like slate—as it has a couple of small chips in it and the dark color of it color goes right through. I’ve seen embossed leather book covers before, but never anything like this one, what can you tell me about it and its value?”

Selma, I’ve seen a couple of copies of this book before, and others with similar covers. “The Good Shunammite” was first published by Longman Brown Green & Longman’s, London, in 1847. Such covers were inspired by medieval manuscripts and Gothic art, which was going through a revival in popularity at the time (its influence could be seen in everything from furniture to architecture during the mid 19th century).

The strange material used in making the cover could be one of two things—Papier-Mâché or what is called “gutta-percha”—but not slate. According to antiquarian booksellers, of the two, gutta-percha would appear to be the most likely candidate. Gutta-percha was first introduced to the West by William Mongomerie in 1843, when he demonstrated its uses before the Royal Society of Arts in London. Gutta-percha is a natural polymer, chemically about the same as natural rubber, but has different properties. It’s harvested much like maple syrup is here in North America; the milky-looking sap tapped from the gutta-percha tree (found in Pacific Rim nations). When the sap is evaporated, what’s left is a material much like a natural form of plastic that can be heated and molded into small decorative items, such as photo frames, trinket boxes, cigar & pencil cases and, in this case, a book cover.

As for the book’s value, you didn’t mention what you paid for it, but I imagine it was far less than what it currently lists for. In the current market examples comparable to yours with some chipping, dings to the corners and other minor defects retail for $500 or more. A copy in fine condition can sell for $900 or more.

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

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