How to understand the basic factors behind the value of antique books.
This is a special guest article by Adam Weinberger of RareBookBuyer.com, a book dealer with over 30 years of experience.
Have you ever wondered what makes an antique book valuable? Why do some books sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others are worth just a few hundred? Maybe you have an antique or rare book, or a library of antique books, and you’re wondering what they're worth.
It’s not always obvious whether or not a book will be valuable. Let’s look at a recent Christie’s book auction (sale 2861, New York, June 19, 2014). A copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia sold for just $4000, while a German book called Neuw Jag unnd Weydwerck Buch - a compilation of texts about hunting and falconry - made $20,000! So why did an obscure book that most people have never heard of sell for five times as much as one of the most famous works in the history of science?
It comes down to a few elements. First: how rare is the book? In other words, how many copies of it are out there in the world? The rarer a book is, the more valuable it’s likely to be.
Now, just because a book is old doesn’t mean it is rare. Most books printed in the 19th century are fairly common. You would probably have to find something printed in the 1700s or earlier for the book’s age to contribute directly to its rarity.
Also, first editions tend to be rarer than later printings of a book. There are some types of objects that are inherently very rare: manuscripts, letters, journals, and original artwork are unique because usually only one example exists. These should be carefully investigated.
The second factor to consider is importance. Is your antique book important in some way? If it is a work of fiction or poetry, was the author famous or influential? If it is a book of science, history, or philosophy, did it announce a major discovery, or change the course of its field? These are the kinds of books that collectors seek.
Ok, let’s say you have a book that’s both rare and important. The next thing you want to look at is condition. In other words, is the book in good shape? Is the binding strong and original? Are the pages clean and unspotted? Are the text and illustrations complete, with nothing missing?
“It looks a lot better than I will in 150 years!” people like to tell me, but condition is something collectors take very seriously. A damaged or incomplete copy of a book can go for far less money than the same book in good condition.
The fourth factor that a dealer or collector will consider is provenance. Provenance is a fancy word for the story of who owned the book before, and from where it came. An interesting or unique provenance can often increase a book’s value.
Let’s say, for instance, that your book was at one point owned by a famous artist or an important politician. Perhaps it was inscribed by the author to his or her sibling or parent. Those would be examples of interesting provenances and could make your book more appealing to a collector.
The last factor is probably the most significant, but also the hardest to quantify: desirability. This just means: does someone out there want your book? And will they pay a lot of money for it?
You could have a first-edition copy of a book by Sir Isaac Newton in pristine condition, but if no one wants to buy it, it has no value (except to you). It's difficult to say exactly what makes a book desirable, but usually it has to do with a combination of the factors we talked about here. Rarity plus importance plus condition plus provenance equals a valuable book!
Let’s answer the original question about the Christie’s auction: The Newton book had the German book beat in terms of importance of text, but the German book was considerably rarer in commerce. First editions of Newton’s Principia are extremely valuable, but this was a third edition.
With regard to condition, the Principia was missing the first-page portrait of Newton, while the book about hunting was complete with a full series of engravings.
In terms of desirability: there have always been a few devoted collectors of falconry books, but recent sales of these books have been fueled by wealthy collectors and institutions in the Middle East who are interested in the importance of falconry in Arabian culture. Specialist dealers keep track of such market trends in order to accurately value rare books.
Still wondering what your old book is worth?