Antiquarian Book Values

Or, How Can I Tell How Much a Used or Rare Book is Worth?


Rare bookSince I was, formerly, an antiquarian bookseller by profession, I still occasionally receive e-mails and telephone calls asking me to state a value for a certain book or group of books that someone has in his or her possession.  This isn’t really possible, for numerous reasons. I  feel that it would be a disservice to others to state general platitudes about book values – there are, especially in the world of book collecting, numerous exceptions to every rule.  The good news is that, while I can’t tell you what your book is worth, there are ways of obtaining that information. 

First off, it’s important to understand that a used or rare book, like any other collectible, is worth precisely what someone else is willing to pay for it at a particular point in time.  Value is a personal, and constantly changing, concept.  The same is true in the art world, and actually rare books are a part of the art world.  There is no one official catalogue of used and rare books, and while such an immense undertaking might at last be plausible with the advent of computer databases, I would not foresee that even that would be sufficient.

An example

Let’s take an example.  The collector comes across a copy of William Tyler Olcott’s Sun Lore of All Ages.  How much is it worth?

First, which edition is it?  Is it a first edition, or a reprint?  Is it a book club edition?  These are not, alas, always easy questions to answer.  A first edition is usually worth significantly more than a reprint or a book club edition.   Sometimes information on the title page or the page immediately following may be helpful, so be sure to look there.  If the book has a dustjacket, the dustjacket might state “book club edition” on the inside flap, or the lack of a price might also indicate that this is a book club edition. 

Sun Lore of All Ages has no dustjacket, so that won’t help us.  The title page and the copyright page both state “1914.” 

We can look the book up in one of numerous guides, and see if it’s listed there.   (That would help, wouldn’t it?)  The big 5-pound Mandeville’s Used Book Price Guide 1998 (Price Guide Publishers, PO Box 82525, Kenmore WA 98028 – $93 + $5 shipping) doesn’t have it listed.  Neither does the 1989 edition of the same price guide.  

The Insider’s Guide to Old Books, Magazines, Newspapers and Trade Catalogs by Ron Barlow and Ray Reynolds (Windmill Publishing Co., 2147 Windmill View Road, El Cajon CA 92020 – $19.95 + $3 postage) does have it listed!  It reads: “OLCOTT, WILLIAM T.  Sun Lore of All Ages.  NY, 1914 1st ed.   Fine.  $65.”  Our copy was published in New York, presumably in 1914, and so presumably is a first edition.  (More information, like the name of the publisher, would have been helpful here, to see if that matches the name of the publisher of our copy.) 

Is our copy “fine?”  The condition of a book will always be slightly subjective, but there are generally accepted guidelines we can use.

Our copy looks fine, except that it has a small bookstore label on the front pastedown, and the name and address of a former owner written on the front free endpaper.   Actually, the corners of the book seem to have been bumped as well.  So it’s not entirely “fine.”  What’s it worth, then?  $60?  $50?

Before we can answer that question, there are still more considerations to take into account.  For one thing, The Insider’s Guide to Old Books, Magazines, Newspapers and Trade Catalogs was published in 1995, and prices for some books in the $50+ range have been steadily moving up.  For another, this book is on a subject that is popular today, and would appeal to folklorists, mythologists, astrologists, etc.  It also has attractive illustrations, and books with attractive illustrations are generally desirable.  

Let us then, for the sake of argument, consider that the book is “worth” $65.00.  Does that mean an antiquarian bookseller would pay you $65.00 for your copy?  It would depend.  First, he or she would have to buy it at a price lower than he or she could sell it, booksellers, like most businesspersons, wishing to make a profit from their activities.  Second, consideration would have to be given to how quickly he or she could resell such an item. 


Not an exact science

Hopefully, you get the general idea here.  On the one hand, valuing books is not an exact science.  On the other, there are resources available.  I recommend that collectors make use of these resources, so that they can avoid wildly overpaying, or wildly underselling.   

  • Some Additional Resources (see also those mentioned above)
    • American Book Prices Current – usually found in reference sections of major public libraries.
    • Catalogues and internet listings of reputable book dealers specializing in antiquarian books – granted, this sounds a bit like asking the fox to design the hen house, but the fact is that dealers who wish to stay in business know that they must price their goods relatively close to market – too high, and people stop buying.
    • The Official Price Guide to Old Books & Autographs, Seventh Edition, New York, House of Collectibles, 1988.  Out of date, which isn’t a good thing for a price guide, but a helpful resource in some ways.
    • Ahearn, Allen and Patricia – Collected Books: The Guide to Values, 1998 Edition.   New York, Putnam’s, 1997.  Some of my dealer friends swear that every price in this book should be reduced from 10% to 20%.  I can’t make such a sweeping generalization, but don’t get your hopes dashed if you can’t find anyone willing to pay $350 for your copy of Frank Bird Linderman’s Lige Mount Free Trapper.    Overall, the Ahearn’s have done a tremendous job with this work, and it should be in every serious collector’s library. 

As in everything else, knowledge is power.  The more one knows about books in general, the more one absorbs about book values.  Thus, the best advice that we can give is not to try to get too much advice from well-written articles on the Internet (ahem!), but rather to read books about book collecting, and obtain information in that manner.  Also visit antiquarian bookstores, book fairs, and the like.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can absorb.


Other Thoughts on the Subject – Amusing, if Not Helpful

“A dealer I knew many years ago in Leicestershire had reduced the system to its stark basic requirements.  His ‘mark-up’ was “a bob for the big ‘uns, a tanner the little ‘uns.”  It always unnerved me to think that, some lucky day, I might find a distinguished ‘little ‘un’, such as the first edition of Paradise Lost or A Pilgrim’s Progress for less than a Chatterbox Annual or With the Flag to Pretoria.”
                    — Grant Uden, Understanding Book-Collecting


“First it’s essential to establish the fact that, just because a book is out of print, it isn’t necessarily valuable.  Quite the contrary; roughly 90 percent of the out of print titles are entirely worthless.  This is especially true of fiction but God knows the world is full of O.P. nonfiction which is worthless as well.”
                    — Dale L. Gilbert, Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore


“Last month I interviewed a veteran book and paper dealer . . . I asked him which price guide he consulted most often.  ‘I just look up at the big blue sky for a moment,” he said, ‘and the right price just pops into my head’.”
                    — Ron Barlow & Ray Reynolds, The Insider’s Guide to Old Books, Magazines, Newspapers and Trade Catalogs


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