Buying and Selling Collectibles: Rare and Antique Books

About the hobby of collecting, buying, and selling old and used items for fun and profit, in this case rare and antique books.

Books. Probably the best opportunities for making attic and junkyard finds lie with old, scarce, and rare books. Because they were originally cheap, these ended up in the hands of average, ordinary folk, who never realized they could be worth anything. Book rarities look like nothing special. They're no older, or larger, or handsomer than other volumes. They're printed on no better paper. So they can easily be overlooked--even by the pros. A copy of one of the most valuable American 1st editions, a little pamphlet titled Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe, was found in a "slush box" outside a bookshop, mixed in with back-date magazines, reprints and textbooks. It might have been handled by hundreds of browsers who failed to take note of it. But when a bibliophile (book collector) finally happened by, he knew what to do. He took the item inside and sold it to the bookshop's proprietor, for a handsome sum.

One of the 11 known copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the 1st book printed in America, turned up unexpectedly in Ireland in the 1930s. Even a Gutenberg Bible, which doesn't look very ordinary, was once stumbled upon. A German peasant family of the 1800s was using leaves from a damaged copy as wrapping paper. Each morning, as the children of the house went off to school, they wrapped their primers in Gutenberg Bible leaves. Today, single leaves from this most famous of all books sell for $5,000.

First editions of most "collected" authors are worth a premium. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, published in 1922, brings $60 in the 1st edition. William Faulkner's The Wild Palms, 1939, is worth $45. Other collectible 1st editions are:

--Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, New York, 1900, $350

--Marx Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson; or An Oxford Love Story, London, 1911, $90

--Rudyard Kipling's France at War, London, 1915, $35

--T.E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom, London, 1926, privately printed for the author, $6,500

--Jack London's The Cruise of the Dazzler, London, 1906, $325

--Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, New York, 1948, $50

--George Orwell's 1984, New York, 1949, $20

Not every 1st edition becomes valuable, even if the book gets to be a best seller. Differences in value depend on edition size and collector demand. But it's always the 1st edition that collectors want, not a reissue, a 2nd printing, or (worse than poison) a book club edition. Many 1st editions state the fact that they are 1st editions, on the reverse side of the title page. Others can sometimes be identified by matching the title page date with the copyright date; if they jibe, the book is likely a 1st edition.

Not only novels and poetry are sought. Many nonfiction works have value. Here, collectors aren't so much interested in the authors, so it's not necessary to seek out famous names. Instead, look for early works on popular topics. Chess, ballooning, football, astronomy are a few of many. Remember that book collectors want pioneer works in their fields, no matter how unelaborate or unauthoritative. Just what is and isn't "pioneer" has to be measured according to the subject's age. A book on radio electronics from 1918 would qualify; so would any circa 1900 work on "horseless carriages."

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