What Old Books Are Worth; When Price, Not Preservation, Is Paramount, It's Best to Set 'Em Straight

Article excerpt

I SEE THEM COME INTO THE Rare Books and Special Collections office almost every day. Sometimes they carry a box; most often they do not. Frequently they just call on the telephone, their voices keen in hopeful anticipation. The initial conversation invariably goes something like this:

"Dr. Dyal?"

"Yes."

"We were rummaging around in Grandmother's house and found a whole bunch of old, rare books in the attic and were wondering how much they're worth. Could you tell us?"

About this time there is usually an expectant hush. While I wouldn't go so far to say that they are panting with hungry anticipation, nevertheless there is a certain excitement in the air. If this were a scene from an old Disney cartoon, dollar signs would be ringing on their eager eyeballs like a cash register. What many really want to know is not the value of their dusty old books, but rather how they will spend all the money they will have once they dump Grandmother's books on the market. The reasoning goes as follows: The books are old, therefore they must be valuable. Depending on how much the books are worth, the owners hope that they can sell them and buy: a) a new car, b) a luxurious plantation in Jamaica, c) the entire state of Alaska, d) all of the above. The idea seems to be that you can turn Grandmother's dross into gold. It's a compelling thought, much like the old alchemist's dream. However, there are a couple of flaws in this line of reasoning.

The first flaw is the assumption that because the books are old they must be rare; and if rare, then valuable (i.e., worth a lot of money). In reality, few old books are rare and even fewer are very valuable. The other flaw is the erroneous notion that you can always sell your books at "market" prices.

Since so many people (including librarians) cling tenaciously to these flawed assumptions, it would be worthwhile to describe book values in general terms.

The reasons that one book may command $5 in the marketplace and another $50,000 are numerous and diverse. There is just too much open yardage there to even begin a discussion of why some books have greater value than others. Nevertheless, there are some guidelines that apply to the used book trade as a whole.

It takes more than age

Many people believe that a book that is 50, 75, or even 100 years old is a rare antique of some significance. Usually, they are wrong. As a general rule, almost no book is valuable solely because of its age. In fact, there is hardly any relationship between date of publication and market value until you get back 300 years or so--and even then it's sketchy. The monetary value of most books is related to demand. Rarity is only important if demand is also important.

By pasting autographed pictures of my inlaws into my old Webster's dictionary, I could create a very "rare" book; that is, a book that has a very small number of obtainable copies. But there would be no demand for such a book (except as a doorstop, perhaps). Its market price would be insignificant or even nonexistent. Similarly, if demand is sluggish and supply is relatively high (like most old Bibles), the market value tends to settle right down there with used tires, polyester leisure suits, and garage-sale toasters that cook on one side only. When demand is high--even when supply is also high--prices tend to rise in the used book market. So if your old book is worth anything, it's because someone else wants it.

Condition is everything

Other significant ingredients in the market value of an individual book are its condition and textual completeness. In fact, when determining the value of a book, condition is everything once you have ascertained that you have a desirable edition.

A few years ago, a professor came into my office. He was a Faulkner specialist, he said, and he was concerned about all of the Faulkner first editions languishing in the library stacks. …