Do you have a shelf full of old books? Are you wondering about your books’ value? First, read Part I: How to Tell a Rare Book From an Old Book. Next, go through this list with each book that seems promising.
1. Dust jackets, dust jackets and more dust jackets!
If there is one single thing that is a make or break for book value, it would be the dust jacket. The value of a first edition copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night with dust jacket is around $6,000. Without a dust jacket….$300. This huge difference in value is largely due to the fact that more than 90% of dust jackets are destroyed, either deliberately or due to their ephemeral and fragile nature. If you have one on a good book, treasure it. Also, be sure to protect it with a plastic sleeve.
2. Who wrote that?
A book is more likely to appeal to collectors, and therefore be worth more, if you have actually heard of the book or its author. Additionally, some books by famous authors are better than others. A first edition of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in good condition is worth around $2,500. However, his Travels with Charley, first edition with dust jacket, is worth around $100.
3. Where was it published?
The location of publication is an often overlooked but important detail in a list of information about a collection of books. Many titles were published virtually simultaneously in two places, for example, London and New York. Whichever hits the shops first is the “true” first edition while the other becomes the “first American edition” or “first English edition.” The value of a “true” first is typically always greater. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949 in both London and New York. The London edition is the “true” first and worth around $1,400. The New York edition is the “first American edition” and worth $250. In this instance, location is very important.
4. To err is Human. And it will make your book more valuable!
When certain books are evaluated, the number of “mistakes” that occur in the printing process will elevate their value. Thrifty printers will not throw out a batch of sheets simply because there was a mistake on the page. They will correct it and move on. Those first sheets now form an “issue point” that collectors use to determine how early in the printing process the sheet was printed. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has over seven documented (and corrected) mistakes during the printing process. If you have all of them (or many of them) in your copy, it can be worth over $10,000. Other copies with a few mistakes are usually worth between $500-1,000. These “issue points” can be found in online references to bibliographical information gathered on each book.
5. Leave no page behind!
Completeness in a book is critical. Even simple pages that have no printing on them, called blanks, are critical to the value of the book. Make certain that there are no loose pages or gatherings of leaves that have come out or are in danger of falling out. One lost page can be devastating to a rare book’s value.
6. Please return to…
Look for ownership inscriptions on books. With luck, they will not be on the title-page, as this diminishes value; they should ideally be located on blank pages before the title page. An owner inscription or signature from a member of your own family is always interesting to find, and if he or she was a well-known person, could add to value.
7. With best wishes…
Always look for author signed books. An author signature can mean an increase in value of ten times or more the ordinary value of the book in most cases. For example, as stated above, an unsigned copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night without a dust jacket might bring around $300. With a simple signature, it could bring $8,000. Skinner sold a copy that was signed and presented to the famous poet Archibald MacLeish. This unique copy brought $23,500 at our November 2004 Books auction!
8. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover
Decorative visual appeal can increase a book’s value. A beautifully leather bound book or one with a pictorial gold leaf cover can form the basis for a really eye-catching shelf; these antique books are usually quite collectible. Simple beauty in a cover or binding can be worth $40-1,000 depending upon the complexity and execution of the design.
With this list of guidelines in hand, a shelf of antique books won’t seem quite so daunting. Did you find something intriguing on your shelves? You can send an image and description using Skinner’s free online auction evaluation form to receive an estimate of what the book might be worth at auction.