The Great Restoration Debate: Should You Rebind or Recover Your Collectible Books?

Book restoration can make a damaged book look much better, but it is expensive. Restoration is a sound decision for a family heirloom, like an 18th-century bible filled with generations of genealogical information, and it can improve the shelf appeal and durability of a treasured keepsake. But the investment requires a closer look at collectibles books that might be resold one day, asking the questions: Is it worth it? Will anyone be able to tell? Does it corrupt integrity?

The spines and corners of these books show bumps, frays and tears. An expert book restorer can repair these imperfections with very good results.

Condition: All collectible values are affected by condition and books are no exception. “Pretty good for its age” may be an often-hear description, but it is totally irrelevant in the vernacular of the book world. Instead, bibliophiles rank book condition with very specific terms:

• Fine – Almost new;
• Very Good – Very minimal wear, tight and clean;
• Good – Average use and wear, may be starting to loosen;
• Fair – Very used and worn;
• Poor – Falling apart.

Condition rankings are always somewhat subjective, but most collectors and dealers know that “Good” is not really a collectible condition. A book might be worth $1,000 in “Fine” condition but only $300 in “Good” condition.

It usually doesn’t take too much to change a “Good” book to a “Very Good” book. An expert restorer can tighten bindings and repair frayed corners and torn spines (while accurately matching cover color). These types of repairs are detectible but almost imperceptible if done correctly. They improve the book but do not change its integrity. It’s usually a good investment for an important book.

Fabulous end papers by the famous artist Maxfield Parrish decorate the inside front and back covers of Eugene Field’s 1904 “Poems of Childhood.” The end paper illustrations add very much to the charm and desirability of this book.

Effect on Integrity: But improving a book that is in “Fair” or “Poor” condition is a different story. Let’s take a book whose covers are present but detached. It is often not possible to expertly reattach the covers without replacing the end papers (pasted to inside of the front and back covers). If the end papers are blank, it usually doesn’t matter too much. But illustrated end papers are sometimes a key point in identifying a first edition (especially with children’s books). With the end papers changed, the edition can become suspect and the original integrity of the book is lost when any illustrations are removed.

Rebinding: When a book is in very bad condition, it is usually completely rebound (with brand new covers). For extremely rare and highly valuable books, especially those from the 16th and 17th centuries—whose covers are rarely intact—rebinding can be immaterial. For example, a copy of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in the United States, sold at auction for more than $14 million in November 2013. It had been rebound in the 1800s, a fact that obviously didn’t hurt its value.

But that tolerance greatly diminishes with books from the 19th and 20th century because collectible versions can be found in their original format. The first issue of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was published in 1897. The poor-quality binding was covered in canary yellow cloth that was easily soiled and torn. Finding a first printing of this famous title in better than “Good” condition is a rarity. But personal preferences vary. Most collectors prefer the original covers but some want it rebound because it displays better.

Both of these are copies of the first issue of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” printed in 1897. The one on the left is in its original cloth-covered covers, with soiling, loose hinges and a heavily darkened (sun-damaged) spine. It sold for $5,500 in 2008. The book on the right has been professionally rebound in new leather. It sold for $3,250 in 2011.

Dust Jackets: Dust jackets are frequently missing from famous first editions. They weren’t regularly saved with a book until well into the 1970s. It is for that reason that an intact vintage dust jacket in “Very Good” condition can dramatically increase the value of a collectible book. In fact, it is often the major portion of the book’s value. It is easy to find inexpensive laser copies of dust jackets on the Internet, but a reproduction jacket does nothing to increase the book’s value and most avid collectors don’t want one that isn’t original.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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