How to Know When Toss-Away Books Could Yield Big Treasures

Unframed 1881 Vero Shaw chromolithographs from “The Illustrated Book of the Dog” sell for $45 to $85 each.

We’ve all seen piles of old and broken books at estate sales; the spines are stripped off, the covers are warped and detached, handfuls of internal pages are missing and they smell a bit musty. Most books, unless they are extremely rare and sought-after, drop tremendously in value when they are in falling-apart condition. And that’s why crippled old books usually don’t get a second glance. But they should.

These bedraggled friends probably sat on a shelf for lifetime, were passed down to family members and were eventually moved to a box in a damp basement to be stored for the next generation. And truthfully, the vast majority of tattered books are just common collections of yesterday’s novels or somebody’s long-forgotten textbooks. But don’t be so quick to rush by that pile of cracked and crumbling leather offered at a tag sale, because there just might be a hidden treasure inside.

Hand-colored engravings from George Cuvier’s 1827-1835 “Animal Kingdom” are unsurpassed in quality and beauty. The color plates can sell for $40 to $80 apiece.

In the 1700s and early 1800s, most illustrations were printed from engraved plates and then laboriously (and meticulously) colored by hand. By the 1840s, vivid chromolithographs were being created via a chemical technique using separately inked stones or zinc plates. Although this allowed a higher volume of high-quality prints to be made, the manual set-up time required to perfectly align and prep each unique color was very lengthy and the equipment expensive. In the early 1900s, photomechanical methods of printing were developed that allowed fast mass production of illustrations. The earlier methods of lithography quickly became outmoded. But prints made from the early techniques are far more valuable than their modern processed counterparts.

Color plates should never be removed from a book in good condition. The illustrations were specifically designed as supplements to the narration and the value of the art is always greater when it is contained within the book. But books in very poor condition with missing pages cannot be appreciated as they were intended and the tipped-in color plates have often become unglued and lost. As the gatherings (sections of pages) come loose from the binding and protrude, they will no longer align neatly. That will cause the edges of the plates to become ragged, soiled and torn. If the book is not going to be restored, it is better to remove those illustrations to be stored in a safe place. And books that are seriously water damaged or moldy should always have their plates removed to prevent further devastation from the moist environment.

These three decrepit and falling-apart books were published in 1885. They sold for a total of $12.50 in April 2011…

. . . but the 30 unique Louis Prang chromolithographs inside can sell for $20 to $40 apiece.

Particularly valuable books can be professionally (and expensively) restored and that is often the right path to take—especially for family heirlooms, treasured keepsakes, books of special interest and rare collectibles. If the covers and spine are still mostly intact, a professional restorer can re-case and tighten the book, repair joints, refurbish leather and mend torn pages. A three-volume first edition of “History of the Indian Tribes of North America” by Thomas McKenney and James Hall (1837-1844) contains 120 hand-colored lithographs and can reach $50,000 to $100,000 at auction. Many of the original paintings were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian in 1865, so some of the illustrations are the only existing copies. These historic books should always be restored if possible. But it’s an unfortunate fact that the individual plates, although rare, are more commonly found on the market than complete books (in any condition). The exquisite, 170-year-old illustrations can easily sell for $500 to $700 apiece.

An original hand-colored lithograph from the first edition of “History of the Indian Tribes of North America” (1837-1844) can sell for $500 to $700.

What should you look for in a book’s illustrative plates?

• First, the book should always be beyond repair before a plate is removed;
• The plate should have minimal or no foxing (brown spotting due to moisture) and no water staining;
• The edges should be crisp and square;
• The borders of the plates should be clean and light;
• The illustrations should be hand-tinted or chromolithographed, with brush strokes or individual color pressings seen under a magnifying loupe. (In contrast, modern, photomechanical plates will show a pattern of uniform, bulls-eye dots when viewed under a loupe);
• And, the subject matter should be unique and interesting.

For best preservation, the art should be matted with acid-free materials, mounted behind glass with protection from ultraviolet light and displayed in a dry, climate-controlled environment.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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