Today, the interest level in antique books is high, possibly due to The Antique Road Show. Many people are looking for old books in their grandparent’s attic, at estate sales and at garage sales. Once they find antique books, they want to know what they are worth.
Difficulties in Valuing Antique Books
Books from the 1800s and earlier didn’t have dust jackets. They have often been read many times and are usually worn and torn and stained. Often they have been repaired – usually the spines are replaced. If all the pages are intact and the boards and spine are in relatively good condition there may be some value in an antique book.
But many books were reprinted many times and are relatively abundant and common. Until the 19th century, printing books required manual labor. The printing presses were operated by hand … book production was a laborious and expensive enterprise. That changed with the invention of the steam engine which automated printing presses in the early 1800s.
By the mid to late 1800s the cost of printing had gone down and the speed had gone up dramatically. Books were now available to everyone. The most popular author’s books were reprinted many times. Inexpensive copies of the books of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and many others were readily available. Many of these reprints have survived until today.
Antique books with the highest value will nearly always be first editions. A book search or books on the subject can help you determine this. Or you may want to get guidance from a book dealer who specializes in antique or rare books.
Ways To Determine the Value of Your Books
One good source of antique book information is Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com) which is the largest used book website. You can also visit wikipedia.org for bibliographies of authors.
Also, if you have enough interest, time and money there is a Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It has been at that location since 1992. It offers five-day courses on various topics on rare and old books. There are courses for booksellers, book collectors, librarians, bookbinders and teachers.
The courses have required reading before you attend. Here are some titles that are frequently recommended:
Short History of the Printed Word by Warren Chappell
Five Hundred Years of Printing by H. S. Steinberg
Twelve Centuries of BookBinding, 400-1600 by Paul Needham
The History of Cartography edited by Mark Monmonier
Nabokov’s Butterfly & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski
Also, books by Nicolas Basbanes are excellent sources of information on rare and collectible books.
My Brother-in-law’s Collection
My brother-in-law has a few hundred antique books that he collected mostly in the 1980s and 1990s on the west coast. They were inexpensive then. (Three are shown on this page.)
He has shown me his books. Most aren’t very impressive at first glance until you see the year and the author and know a little about the background of the book.
So if you have an interest in collecting antique books or need to know what they are worth … read about them, do your homework and talk to the experts (like those at Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America or ABAA) before making a purchase or sale.