How to Know If Granny’s Old Books Are Worth Anything

Identifying the first state of Pearl Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel “The Good Earth” depends on several different points, including a subtle change in the name of the publishing company and the color of the top stain.

At some point, most people find ways to dispense with the personal property of a loved one. Keepsakes are divided and estate sales are held. But one of the most difficult tasks is sorting through boxes and boxes of old books. How can you tell if any of them are valuable? Where can you sell them?

Usually, the cost of an expert consultation is more than the value of the books. But thankfully, there are a few guidelines that can help determine whether or not those boxes might hold anything with potential.

The most important question to ask is: Was your relative a collector or just an avid reader? If the relative was a collector, then the boxes may hold books of value. Collectors invest in their books. They talk about them. They search for books when traveling. They buy through the mail from sellers in other cities. They attend book fairs. Some of their books were sought-after for years before they were found. They may have Mark Twain titles inscribed and autographed by the author, 17th-century anatomy books, or Edward Ruscha photography books. They may have rare titles of historical or special interest. Or maybe a set of first-edition Tom Swifts in their original dust jackets.

If your relative was such a collector, then a qualified appraiser should appraise the library and provide a written report for insurance, charitable donation or estate tax. For resale, collections like these should be brokered through specialized auction houses with capabilities to reach a broad audience.

But more often than not, the relative was just an avid reader. Avid readers pick up books at used bookstores and belong to monthly book clubs. They browse at public-library remainder sales on Saturday mornings. They probably have old family books that were passed down to them and they kept on their shelves. They have a wide variety of material that interests them. The chances for books of value in this group are low.

Daniel DeFoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” has been reprinted countless times since 1719. Most reprints have little value, but the first printing of the 1920 version is prized by collectors because it is illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.

Although television shows like “Antiques Roadshow,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” lead viewers to believe that treasures are waiting in everyone’s attic, it is extremely unusual to find a gem hidden in the dust. There are always exceptions, but here are a few rules of thumb:

• In general, books of low interest (and thus minimal value) include book-club editions, public-library editions, subjects that date poorly like almanacs, humor, textbooks, encyclopedias and self-help books, religious and inspirational books, celebrity biographies and yesterday’s novels;

• Common reprints of classic titles have little value. That includes multi-volume anthology sets, such as works by Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare. Classics like “Robinson Crusoe” have been reprinted thousands of times by hundreds of different publishers, so they are not rare. Reprints that may have value usually include those with elaborate and decorative bindings, the first appearance of illustrations by a famous artist, or the first appearance of specialized editing;

• A first edition is only valuable if the title is collectible;

• For collectible titles, recognizing a first edition can sometimes be difficult. Value often depends on finer points such as advertising, typographical errors and dust jacket styles that determine the printing, issue or state of the first edition. But use common sense—and Google. If your famous title was first printed in 1832 and you have one dated 1878, it’s not a first edition;

• A book signed by the author is only valuable if the author is collectible;

• Condition is extremely important. An average book that is missing its spine, has heavily spotted pages, is water damaged or is falling apart has very minimal value;

• Just because a book is old doesn’t mean it has monetary value. Billions of books have been published and copies from the 19th century are not particularly rare. In general, books might have higher value if they were printed before 1500, printed in English before 1700, printed in the United States before 1800, or printed west of the Mississippi before 1850;

• The copyright date usually does not represent the date of publication. It represents the date the work was first published but not the date the current book was published.

This copy of “The Land of Oz” has a copyright date of 1904 but was actually printed in the early 1960s

Now that you’ve determined you have boxes of books with mostly nominal value, how do you dispose of them?

If you have low or moderately valued collectible books, you can put them on eBay. These might include modern juvenile series, science fiction, classic mysteries and vintage westerns. They can be easily shipped in padded mailers.

But very few people want to buy a 1906 Algebra book, a Reader’s Digest Condensed book or a decades-old novel by an unknown author. Assisted-living facilities, libraries, the Salvation Army and women’s shelters usually welcome donations of easy reading material such as fiction and biographies. Half-Price Books will give you pennies on the dollar, but they do recycle or donate what they can’t sell and include worldwide non-profit agencies in their circle.

If your relative cherished these books, keep a few on your shelf as a remembrance of something they treasured and enjoyed. That value is higher than a monetary one.

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

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