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Breaking Books

Is a complete book always greater than the sum of its parts?

John James Audubon, plate xxvi, Wolverine, hand-colored engraving from the imperial folio edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Philadelphia: Bowen, 1845-1848.

A rare book can lose a significant amount of value if it’s missing even a single page of text. If what’s lacking is a title page, illustration, or map, the price will drop like an anvil in a cartoon. The same goes for a set of books that happens to be missing one or two volumes. And yet every day in the Skinner Fine Books & Manuscripts department we see plates, maps, title pages, and text leaves removed from valuable books. At some point, someone decided to break up the book and sell it for its parts.

Is it ever appropriate to break up an intact book? It’s always best to consult with an expert before taking this step yourself, but here are some general guidelines to help you recognize when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Sets

Sets should never be broken up. They very seldom have any value when separated from their fellows. Leave all sets together, count them, and if you have volume three only, lower your expectations. Incomplete sets in fine gold-tooled leather bindings in excellent condition have decorative value only.

Old Maps

Most framed maps from the 16th to 19th centuries were originally published in books. Atlases generally contain little to no text, and they are often taken apart because the maps within are simply worth more money when sold separately. People often collect maps for geographical reasons, making it unlikely that one collector would seek maps of both New England and the Iberian Peninsula, for example. So in the case of an atlas, I can understand the argument for liberating the maps to be enjoyed individually.

When a book contains one map only, for example in the case of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi, which contains a map of New England, the removal of that map can hurt the value of the book by a factor of ten. Whatever is gained by having that map singly on the wall is hard to justify when measured against the loss to the book from which it was taken.

Natural History Illustrations

The famous Audubon prints of North American birds and quadrupeds are strikingly beautiful, and they were all published not as separate prints, but in book format. As a complete set, the so-called double elephant folio is a little over three feet tall, two feet wide, and weighs more than 200 pounds. Viewing the 435 hand-colored prints in this massive tome is a bit of a physical and logistical struggle. Approximately 120 copies still exist as books, and keeping them together is important, but very few collectors can afford to pay the nearly $8 million price tag for a complete set. Selected with care, and displayed individually, prints separated from the original books will always be popular with collectors. And although taking a knife to a perfect copy of this book would be a sacrilege, an incomplete or damaged copy might be best preserved by its own dissolution.


This German term means anthology, and refers to a collection, usually of short works, that were originally published separately, but were subsequently bound together in a single volume. In the early days of publishing, booksellers sold books disbound. Readers were obliged to engage a bookbinder if they wanted covers. Many a thrifty bibliophile accrued a stack of sermons, plays, controversial pamphlets, or other miscellaneous works of the same format before visiting the bookbinder. This way, for the price of one binding, one could have a dozen or more separate works bound together. I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of breaking up sammelbands. By grouping these texts, the original collector has created something new, another document that tells a more nuanced story about the history of reading, collecting, and the use of texts.

Autograph Books

The 19th century saw a popular craze of autograph acquisition, with collectors seeking out famous signatures to fill the pages of specially made blank albums. Presidents, entertainers, artists, and authors, no one was safe from the autograph hound. In the book department, we see many autograph albums, and the diversity of signatures can present a problem. Is the Abraham Lincoln collector interested in a Longfellow signature? Will the album make more at auction in one piece, or divided? When the collection tells the story of people related by a common set of circumstances, the album is better left together. A group of unrelated signatures would likely perform better for the consignor offered separately at auction.

Medieval Manuscripts and Early Printing

Illuminated leaves written by hand, painted in vivid colors, and highlighted with pure gold are a familiar sight to most collectors and book lovers. But the vast majority of these lovely parchment pages originally resided in books. Over the centuries, many manuscripts and early printed books have been taken apart page by page, sold off piecemeal, and lost forever. I have a soft spot in my heart for all early books, and find that I can’t accept any justification for dismembering printed books from Gutenberg’s century and manuscripts from the middle ages.

As with other antiques and art, it’s always best to get an expert’s opinion before doing something that can’t be undone. We’ve all heard horror stories of precious pieces lost to overzealous refinishing or innocently ignorant reuse. Almost all valuable relics of our past are served best when left intact. But in certain circumstances, the parts may be worth more than the whole, and in these special cases, it may be necessary to break up one collection in order to build the next.


10 thoughts on “Breaking Books

  1. Congratulations, Devon Gray. Yours is one of the most incisive, sraightforward and succinct declarations I have read on the dismembering or not of books.
    How do I print it out for display in my shops?

  2. I have a little book. Its title is “In Mythland.” It is Vol.I by Helen Beckwith, Copyright 1896, Illustrated by Susanne Lathrop, issued by the Educational Publishing Co. I have no jacket. It is in wonderful condition. What is its value, if any, please?

  3. Hello Mrs. Devon Gray,
    I have an interesting piece I would like to have evaluated. It appears to be a painting/print by James Whistler. My first clue of this artwork was the bridge and the fireworks. Upon close inspection with a loupe, I noticed that the points of light in the sky were gold painted on the surface of the artwork. In a strong raking light, I noticed that the gold flecks of the fireworks were placed above the surface of the entire artwork. This gave me a clue that the artwork had received more attention in its manufacture. The title of the piece I found on Wikipedia is Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge 1872 Tate museum. The version that I have is darker but still has all of the elements of the painting in the Tate museum. Please advise as to how I should proceed. Thanks in advance for your attention.

  4. 8/20/13 Wonder if there is any value to this deep red hardcover book. Spine title is Tom Browns’ School Days. Cover says Columbus Series & shows picture of a man and a ship and words “may blessings be upon the head of Cadmus The Phoenicians or whoever it was that invented books” Thos. Carlyle 1892. Inside page “Tom Browns School Days at Rugby by An Old Boy (Thomas Hughes) New York International Book Company. Then following page “Tom Brown’s School Life”. Pages have browning ..covers are very clear with minimal wear on corners & top & btm of spine. Pages tight,intact,no tears,very clean. 405 pages. Thanks so much.

    • This book was first published in the late 1850s. The series was popular from that time through to the end of the 19th century. Although the book seems old, this edition actually came out more than thirty years after the first edition, and therefore is not valuable to collectors, although it is interesting to read and own.

  5. Good evening Ms. Gray,

    I have a set of Audubon’s Quadrupeds in good condition (don’t really know the difference between very good and good). They were passed down to me from my grandmother who passed away over a decade ago. I am a birder and that was the reason I ended up with them. Glad I took up birding at an early age! I am wondering what the value would be for them. Could you provide some info for me on that subject?

    Thanks very much,

    Darin Eddy

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