“Help! I have a ton of old books!”
I’m an antique book appraiser, so I hear this phrase a lot, maybe eight or ten times a week. However, it doesn’t always inspire the excitement or anticipation that I usually feel at the start of a great antique book hunt. Old books aren’t necessarily rare books.
Let’s face it, our forebears read many more books than we do. Perhaps this is because we now have other things to do, like watch 500 channels of cable television, surf the internet, discover the great outdoors or participate in any number of other diversions that attract our attention. It isn’t my intention to pontificate about current social trends, but the point is that we read fewer books these days and many people wonder what to do with bookshelves and boxes containing their parents’ or grandparents’ treasured libraries.
When faced with an avalanche of “old books,” where do you begin sorting the “wheat from the chaff” to ferret out valuable rarities? Here are the three questions you should answer before contacting a book appraiser or rare book auction house.
1. Were your parents or grandparents who accumulated this library book collectors, or book readers?
If your parents or grandparents were known collectors and have a listing of their library, chances are very good that they knew what information was important to document. With this information in hand, an antique book appraiser will have an excellent basis from which to ascertain current market value. This information will go a long way towards understanding the overall potential of the collection. If they weren’t collectors, but, say avid book readers, read on…
2. Do your books have dust jackets?
Let’s consider a typical wall of books collected in the post-Industrial Revolution era (after 1840). Look at your books. Do you see the existence of dust jackets around the covers? These are the eminently disposable paper wrappers that were universally found cladding books in the post-World War I era. This is the single most critical aspect (some would say ONLY aspect) of value that a 20th century book can possess.
When you consider the fragile nature of paper dust jackets, it is not difficult to see how quickly they can be lost or damaged over the course of a century. The presence of this paper wrapper can represent up to 95% of the value of a 20th century title. Collectors are also very conscious of the condition of these jackets. Edge chipping and small tears need to be protected from getting worse. Thus a secondary plastic sleeve may be necessary to protect the condition of a rare book going forward.
3. Are you familiar with the titles and authors?
Next, look at the titles. Are these books you’ve heard of? Catcher in the Rye? For Whom the Bell Tolls? Cannery Row? To Kill a Mockingbird? Given the relative ease of publishing books in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a plethora of books were printed that are irrelevant today. It doesn’t matter if the book is a first edition or a limited edition of “My Aunt Minnie’s Trip to Alaska” (fictitious title, here), unless the title has stood the test of time and could be considered a modern classic, it probably is not a collector’s item. Sort out titles that you recognize by authors you know or who are familiar. You’ll find that the “known” pile will be significantly smaller than the unknown pile, and that’s okay. You have completed a critical first step in the great book sort.
Stay tuned for Part II, when I’ll explain eight things that help determine antique books’ value.