Hidden in Plain Sight

The most valuable items are many times the items one sees everyday. For example, there are often treasures that can be found in Grandma’s box of old costume jewelry.

In the appraisal business, I’m often asked what items with value go unnoticed the most often, and my answer is, “those hidden in plain sight.” In other words, the most valuable items are many times the items one sees everyday–the ones that seem mundane enough not to arouse any speculation as to their value. Maybe they’ve been used in a way that makes them appear worthless, such as a small Ming China bowl being used to hold sugar for the last 30 years, or Art Deco Bakelite earrings and bracelets piled in with a box of Grandma’s old costume jewelry. 

My favorite hidden treasure is sterling silver in the form of silver jewelry, because like the Bakelite items already mentioned, it is often mixed in with boxes of costume jewelry.The sterling goes unnoticed because the markings to indicate the silver content are often too small to read or badly worn. Sterling flatware is another example; items such as knives, forks, souvenir spoons, etc., are often thrown in with mixed lots of ordinary silver plated flatware at garage sales and thrift stores. The best part about silver is it has two values: the value as a collectible and the value for its silver content. Even if badly damaged, silver items of all types always retain a salvage value as silver bullion, and at the time I write this, sterling scrap sells for almost $12.00 a standard ounce.

I would have to say though that books are probably the one item with the highest potential that are most often glanced over. The most common misconceptions about valuable books are:  the books have to be old; they must be written by a half dozen famous authors the public is familiar with; and, they are most likely the ones we all had to read in high school English classes. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  These days books don’t have to be ancient tomes with leather bindings to be valuable.  In fact, depending on the popularity of the author, they can be less than 10 years old. The amount is not always huge, but can be substantial if you luck out and find say a first edition copy of any of Sue Grafton’s earlier “Kinsey Milhone” series, a return of an easy $50.00 for an investment often under $5.00.   

Books are probably the one item with the highest potential that are most often glanced over. This signed first printing of U is for Undertow, the 21st Kinsey Milhone mystery, sold for $20 in March 2017.

There are some “Must Be’s” required though to sort the good books from those best used to prop up a couch with a broken leg. The main ones being that the book is “first edition,” in good condition with its original cover intact, and perhaps most valuable, that the book be inscribed by the author. Determining a first edition can be tricky at first, as some publishers have different ways of indicating it, but most now use a numerical code on the copyright page.  For example, a string of numbers is often used like “10987654321.”  Depending on the publisher, the numbers can be ascending, descending or even random. The key is that the lowest number shown indicates the printing. So, if the number “1”  is included in the string, it’s very likely a first edition; if the lowest number is 2 or higher, it is a later edition.  Some will also have words such as “First Printing,” or “First Edition.” Sometimes a book that was first published elsewhere in the world will have a phrase such as “First American Printing,” indicating it’s not a first edition. It will still have more value than a later printing, but generally less than the original foreign first edition. For further reference to determining first editions, there is a very good guide here, but the numerical code works for most modern 20th Century first editions and new books.

As an experiment, just this week I went to my local charity shop to do a test to see if my theory still held up. The place has books piled everywhere on rough pine shelves, many of them are reprints, later editions, or “book club” editions, but based on past experience, quite a few are first editions. My guess is most were originally received as unappreciated Christmas or birthday gifts, because the vast majority of them appear to have been unread with nary a dog-eared page or bookmark to be found. 

The hard cover books in my local shop seldom sell for more than $3.00, so one isn’t taking much of a chance getting at least a good read on a rainy night for their two to three bucks. The books come in box loads every week and are dumped on the shelves under categories of fiction, non fiction, romance and biography, so at least some of the digging has been narrowed down. 

Within ten minutes of hunting, I found a first edition of Simon Brett’s Murder in the Museum. It retails for about $30, but I paid $2.

Being a Mystery Buff, particularly antique related mysteries, I just looked for a few of my favorite authors’ names on the book spines. Within ten minutes I found a first edition of Simon Brett’s “Murder in the Museum,” in fine condition, published in 2003, which retails for about $30.00 at Booksellers.  I paid $2.00. Next up came a first edition of Anne Rice’s “Memnoch the Devil” in good condition, published in 1995, a $75.00 book. I paid $2.00.

After wading through all the mysteries I thought I’d take a shot at “romance.” The shelves were loaded with tiles by Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, both very popular writers, but most of the titles were not first editions, and if their condition was any indication, they had been very well read. I didn’t find anything there that might go for even $5.00. I moved on, digging through piles of  yet to be sorted books. The next one I found almost made me cry–a first American edition of Ian Rankin’s Knot’s and Crosses published in 1987. It was his first novel about Scottish Detective John Rebus. Even though it was in fair condition in all other ways, sadly it was missing its dust cover. Had it been still intact it would have been a $500.00+ book. I bought it anyway, as it was only two bucks, and I’ve always been a sucker for a hard boiled detective novel. I’ll put it away, who knows? Maybe I’ll come across a cover for it.

Lastly, just for fun I grabbed books randomly, based on size and went through them. I came across an “Omnibus” collection of Leslie Charteris’ novels about the fictional Private Detective Simon Templar, “The Saint” of television and movie fame. It cost three dollars, priced for its weight I suppose. I bought  it mainly for the multiple evenings of reading it would provide during the dark nights of winter to come, and surprisingly it lists at over $75.00.

I’ll most likely not sell these books, I’ll just add them to my collection, but in terms of what I spent  in time ( 45 minutes) and money ($7.00), a potential return of $180.00 is very good going. Had the Ian Rankin Rebus Novel still had its dust cover, it would have amounted to about $800.00 before lunch, a good day by anybody’s book.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com.

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