How to Find the Value of Old Books

This rare 18th century book on botany is on display at the Herbarium library of London's Royal Botanic Gardens.
This rare 18th century book on botany is on display at the Herbarium library of London's Royal Botanic Gardens.
Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images

Everyone has an "Antiques Roadshow" fantasy. Maybe a great-aunt passes away and you're asked to sort through her dusty, overstuffed attic. After digging through boxes and boxes of moth-ridden clothes and yellowed newspaper clippings, you come upon a tightly sealed chest.

Prying the chest open with a crowbar, you find a row of pristine books with gilded edges and crisp, unopened bindings. You gently pull them from the chest: first editions of "The Catcher in the Rye," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the complete "Lord of the Rings" trilogy! All signed by the authors! You've stumbled upon a rare book bonanza worth tens of thousands of dollars -- and that's why they call it a fantasy.

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But what if you really do find a collection of old, possibly valuable books? How do you know if they're worth anything? Short of waiting for "Antiques Roadshow" to come to town, you can start by understanding the qualities and attributes of truly rare and valuable books.

Just because a book is old doesn't mean that it's automatically valuable. The most basic criterion is scarcity. A book is considered rare -- and therefore more valuable -- when demand exceeds supply [source: RBMS]. Even if a book is hundreds of years old, it's worthless if there are thousands of copies in circulation (and if nobody particularly wants them).

Beyond scarcity, there are several other factors that influence the value of an old book: its physical condition, its importance as a literary work and its "story" -- where it came from, if it was an inscribed gift from the author or the property of a famous person [source: ABAA]. First editions generally carry the most value. A first edition is any copy of a book that was printed from the first setting of type [source: ABAA].

Among serious bibliophiles, several categories of books are considered the rarest and most sought-after texts:

  • A complete first-edition Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed in 1456 (estimated worth: $25 to $35 million)
  • Anything printed before 1501
  • English books printed before 1641
  • American books printed before 1801
  • Banned or suppressed works of which few copies survive

[sources: Harper and RBMS]

If you think you own a rare and valuable book, start by examining its condition. In the next section, we'll explain how to grade a book from "as new" to "poor" and everything in between.

Determining Book Condition

Grading the physical condition of an old book is an extremely subjective process usually left to professional book appraisers. Professional appraisers have examined thousands of books and have the experience to weigh the dozens of subtle criteria that differentiate "fine" from "very good." But if you want to get a rough idea of your book's condition -- and its relative value on the rare book market -- here are the basics.

The highest grade for a book's physical condition is "as new." This is a book that hasn't even been opened. It's been stored in impeccable conditions and shows absolutely no signs of wear or use. Note that bibliophiles don't like to use the word "mint," since serious collectors reserve the term for grading money, not books [source: Pappas].

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A book in "fine" condition is complete and shows little to no wear. For some booksellers, a grading of "fine" equals "handled, but flawless" [source: Gozdecki]. Be careful, though: The overuse of the term "fine" in online bookselling circles has caused some grumbling.

Many "fine" books would more accurately qualify as "very good," which means a complete book with very minor defects. "Good" describes the average condition of an older book -- some signs of wear and minor damage, perhaps to the dust jacket.

A book is deemed "fair" if it's complete, but the damage to the dust jacket or edges of the pages is more evident. The lowest grade for an old book is "poor" or "reading copy." This is a book with significant damage that would only be worth selling if it includes rare signatures, inscriptions or was owned by a famous person. Lacking any special circumstances, any book missing pages is worthless [source: RBMS].

Here are some common terms used to describe the condition of old books:

  • Bookworm damage -- A problem in only the very earliest books; moths or larvae burrow through pages and bindings
  • Dampstain -- A tan or gray stain due to water damage. It doesn't lower the value of otherwise rare books.
  • Foxing -- Certain older types of printing paper include impurities like iron that can oxidize under humid conditions and leave rusty brown stains.
  • Inscription --A handwritten, signed note from the author or another famous person. If the inscription designates the book as a gift, then it's called a "presentation inscription."
  • Rebound --If the original binding is damaged, an old book may be re-sewn into a new binding. In most cases, this lowers the value of the book considerably.
  • Started -- Refers to sections of bound pages (called signatures) beginning to pull away from the binding
  • Shaken -- Refers to signatures that have pulled loose from the binding

[source: ABAA]

If you think your old book is "fine," then it's time to seek out a professional opinion. In the next section, we'll discuss book appraisers.

Book Appraisers

Professional book appraisers earn their reputation and their credibility through years of experience. You don't just wake up one day and decide you want to appraise books for a living. Most appraisers spend years working their way up through the world of antiques and collectibles. They might start off as a shelver in a used and rare bookstore or a "picker" for an antique shop -- someone who drives around to estate sales and other antique stores looking for rare finds. Over the years, they gain enough expertise to start collections of their own and eventually open their own bookshops.

With enough experience, and close adherence to established standards of practice, the seemingly subjective art of book appraisal edges closer to a science. The most reliable appraisers are accredited by professional organizations like the American Society of Appraisers. Accredited members must take a test and vow to work in compliance with the "Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice," an annual publication put out by the Appraisal Foundation. In the U.S., there's no such thing as a "license" to conduct appraisal work on personal property, only real estate appraisals [source: Aimone].

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It might seem strange that book appraisers would have to adhere to such strict standards, but that's because not all book valuations are done for the benefit of amateur collectors. In many cases, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) relies on accredited appraisers to determine an estate's value. Lawyers call in appraisers during divorce settlements and insurance companies rely on appraisers when determining the level of coverage for personal property [source: AbeBooks.com].

Book appraisal doesn't require any specialized formal education. People enter the field from diverse educational backgrounds. A few colleges have degree programs or specialized coursework in the "valuation sciences," but most appraisers are educated on the job in the "theory, history and law of art valuation" [source: Aimone].

If you're in the market for a professional book appraiser, a great place to start is with a professional appraisal association, of which there are plenty.

Book Appraisal Associations

One of the best ways to locate a professional book appraiser near you is to consult one of the major professional appraisal trade associations.

The most well-known such organization in the U.S. is the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. This 50-year-old organization includes 450 members located across the U.S., with significant concentrations in the Northeast and California. Great Britain boasts the oldest such organization with the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, founded in 1906 [source: International League of Antiquarian Booksellers]. In France, it's the Syndicat National de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne, which goes by the decidedly un-"ancienne" acronym of SLAM.

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The umbrella organization for the 22 country-specific book appraisal and rare book collecting organizations around the world is the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). This organization holds an annual international book fair in a different global capital. In 2009, the ILAB International Antiquarian Book Fair was held in Vienna, Austria.

In the U.S., book appraisers may choose to become accredited by the American Society of Appraisers, an organization that represents a broad range of professional so-called "valuers" that include appraisers of businesses, real estate, jewelry and technology, as well as personal property appraisers that handle objects like art, books and other collectibles.

Since many book appraisers have day jobs as the owners and staff experts at the country's finest independent bookstores, you might also have luck consulting the American Booksellers Association, a trade group that represents the more than 1,200 large and small independent bookstores in the U.S.

If you don't have time to track down your nearby professional book appraiser, there are ample online resources for determining the value of your literary treasure. Go to the next page for the top book appraisal Web sites.

Book Appraisal Web Sites

This rare and valuable first edition of A.A. Milne's classic "Winnie The Pooh" features the author's inscription.
This rare and valuable first edition of A.A. Milne's classic "Winnie The Pooh" features the author's inscription.
Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images

There are a number of popular Web sites that allow you to search by title, author or subject to find rare, first editions and even signed copies of some of the world's most valuable books. If you have your hands on what you believe to be a rare book, these Web sites can be a great resource for determining the approximate number of copies in circulation, as well as their selling prices.

The rare books section of AbeBooks.com is a great place to search for highly sought-after and expensive books. The advanced search option at AbeBooks.com not only lets you search by title, author, keyword, ISBN number and publisher, but also limits search results to certain price ranges, countries and special attributes like first editions and signed copies.

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The "Search for Books" section of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America Web site is another fine online resource for conducting a rare book search among the ABAA membership. To expand your search results to international booksellers, try the "Book Search" tab of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers site.

The BiblioBot feature of the PBA Galleries Web site allows you to enter in all of the pertinent information about your book -- author, title, publishing year, condition, if it's a first edition or signed -- and receive an "instant appraisal." What the site really does is run a search on similar books for sale or auction and show you an estimated price range.

Of course, if you simply want to watch other people living out their "Antique Roadshow" fantasies, you can watch free, full-episode video clips at PBS.org.

For lots more information about books and fine art, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • AbeBooks.com. "Dreaming of Books with Allan Stypeck."http://www.abebooks.com/docs/RareBooks/Avid-Collector/Feb06/allan-stypeck-interview.shtml
  • Aimone, Alan. Aimone Book Appraisals. "What is it worth?"http://www.thegrayduck.com/aimone/worth.html
  • Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. "Frequently Asked Questions"http://hq.abaa.org/books/antiquarian/abaapages/faqs
  • Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. "Glossary"http://hq.abaa.org/books/antiquarian/glossaryall
  • Gozdecki, Roger. Alibris. "Condition, condition, condition." April 1998.http://www.alibris.com/article/122909/book-condition-grading/grading-books-accurate-physical-descriptions?cm_sp=oop-_-article-snippet-_-readmorebook-condition
  • Harper, Philipp. MSNBC. "In the book world, the rarest of the rare."http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6124643/
  • International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. &l;Amor Librorum Nos Unit"http://www.ilab.org/eng/ilab/history.html
  • Pappas, Nick. Alibris. "If it ain't fine then don't tell me it is!" March 1997http://www.alibris.com/article/122909/book-condition-grading/grading-books-describe-fine-book-condition?cm_sp=oop-_-article-snippet-_-readmorebook-condition
  • Rare Books and Manuscripts Section. Association of College and Research Libraries. "Your Old Books"http://www.rbms.info/yob.shtml