One of the most commonly misunderstood categories of antiques is books. Once again, it all comes down to the law of supply and demand. Considering just how many books there are in the world (how many have you bought in your lifetime compared to any other durable item?), it shouldn’t be hard to understand that a book needs to be really special in some way in order to be valuable.
Old does not mean rare
Most folks believe that a book from the late 1800s or early 1900s is old and rare, and they’re correct on the first point. But there are countless millions of books still around from that time, and very few are rare or desirable. To be considered “really old” by book collecting standards, an American book needs to be dated from the 1700s or earlier, and a European book needs to be older than that by at least a hundred years.
Look at the book’s subject, not its age
Knowing that, then, the most important thing to look for in an old book is its content. Books that shed light on the way things were, or that offer clarification or proof about historical, religious or scientific subjects can be highly desirable. Rare books or editions by noted authors can also command high selling prices. First printings of important works can be very valuable even if the book itself is only a few years old. It’s important to confirm that your copy is actually a first printing of the first edition. This usually requires skillful research to determine.
Books can also be valuable if they have certain physical attributes such as autographs, hand-illuminated illustrations, leather bindings or other special printing and binding techniques. Dust jackets can frequently make the difference between a desirable and undesirable book. In all cases, physical condition can make or break the value of a book.
Some books are almost never valuable
Books that are rarely ever valuable include bibles and prayer books newer than 1772, dictionaries, encyclopedias, text books and collected works by famous authors and poets. All of these books were generally printed in very large quantities.
A good rule of thumb is that (unless you’re a bibliophile or a descendant of one), if you can recognize the name of a book or author, in all likelihood any copy of such a book you might have is probably not worth much.
If, on the other hand, you have a book that has the condition, subject matter and age that can make it valuable, get it looked at by a good antiques dealer or antiquarian bookseller. The right old book could fund your retirement.
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