Mining for Book Treasures

Why amass book collectibles? What drives some of us to fill our homes from floor to ceiling with books, to haunt bookshops, book fairs and auctions to acquire more and then cast forth again to seek yet more? Well, mainly, many of us who collect do so because we love books, and we like to have them around us within easy reach.

Books are a repository of knowledge, a key to a whole world of shared human experience, research and imagination. And apart from what’s inside them, books come with their own portion of interesting history—who wrote them and under what circumstances, who illustrated them and in what way, who published them and how and when, who bought them, and what impact they made, if any, on the readers, how they survived censorships and bans and the effects of time, and much more.

Books have the power to mold and influence human beings, and to hold—and own—something that was instrumental in altering the course of history or culture is part of the thrill of book collecting.

Limited edition Survey of the Rise of British Shipping by C.Stansfeld Hicks

(Photo courtesy of GoAntiques)

Collected throughout the ages, surviving book collections of great men offer us a glimpse into their ideas, interests, motivations and inspirations. Many early collections, however, began for more practical and social reasons than personal ones—to encourage printers, to promote research scholarship, to save books from destruction, to have a fashionable library or to aspire to intellectual pretensions.

Collecting books as an investment is a modern phenomenon and a rather dicey, long-term issue. There are no guarantees, so proceed with caution.

Value of antique books

As age doesn’t automatically translate to wisdom, so it is with old books. All are not valuable. A great many, actually, are destined for the recycling bin. Very few want to read, let alone collect, poetry by unsung poets, technical manuals, out-of-date encyclopedias, etc.

Others like old Bibles, printed in millions, have more sentimental family value than any financial one—unless it’s an earliest edition from the 16th and 17th century, a large, gilt and ornate display-quality Bible, one profusely illustrated by a famous illustrator like Gustave Doré or one owned by a famous personality.

(Photo courtesy of GoAntiques)

Value always depends first and foremost on the demand for a given book—based on popularity of author, title and subject—and the number of copies available for purchase. If there are few copies in existence or in circulation, then it is a rare book and, if highly sought, a valuable one, as well. And then there are other considerations such as—

Condition of a given copy
Intact dust jacket
Printing history
Quality of paper and binding
Any controversy surrounding it

What to collect

Collect what you like. You can specialize in specific genres or subgenres, or collect according to author, illustrator, publisher or printer. Or go for—

First editions
First issues
First states
Earliest imprints
Advance review copies or galley proofs
Award-winning books
Landmark books such as Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” or Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.”
Art books
Illustrated books, comic books or graphic novels
Miniature books

1924 “Tom Swift and His Great Oil Gusher” (left), 1943 “Cherry Ames Student Nurse (Photos courtesy of GoAntiques)

Some people collect by cover- or dust-jacket art, binding or book design, or according to paper, parchment or vellum.

Where to buy antique books

Contact a reputable antiquarian dealer, preferably someone affiliated with the ABA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association) or the ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers).

Visit online sites such as GoAntiques (WorthPoint’s sister site), Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, and Bibliofind.
Visit antique bookshops.
Attend auctions and charity fundraisers.
Attend estate, garage, rummage and yard sales.

How to buy antique books

Refer to antiquarian references, bibliographies, book catalogs and annual compilations of auctions.

Collect books in fine or very good condition. Don’t buy worn books unless very rare or scarce, and forget entirely about books with missing pages. Also avoid incomplete series.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” with an inscription by the author (Photos courtesy of GoAntiques)

When buying online, read book-description and book-condition details carefully. Ask the seller for the details if not listed. Inquire about the state of the dust jacket, cover and title lettering, book hinges and endpapers, binding, any written inscriptions by previous owners and any foxing, dust marks or stains on the pages. Be sure to read the selling policy—there should be a money-back guarantee in case you’re not happy with your purchase.

What to keep in mind

All first editions are not prized—successive editions with corrected errors, significant changes or more information may be more valuable.
Get familiar with grading terms and terms like edition, printing, first edition, issue, state, variants, first books.
Ex-libris means it comes from a private collection or from a lending library.
Things like shelf numbers, date stamps, cardholders reduce value.
BCE (book club editions) have little value.

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