Book Collecting for Love and Money

By Anthony Accetta

Finding or “discovering” a good upper-end rare book is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is difficult but not impossible. My discovery came a few years ago while traveling the back roads of central Vermont near Randolph Center. Out of habit, I pulled over when I noticed a garage sale being conducted by a young couple on the front lawn of their rural home.

Along with all with all the stuff commonly exhiblted at such sales, I noticed a box of hardcover books with the sign “$1 Each, Three for $2.” I went through them. There were some college texts on physics, American literature and history, and a tattered copy of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, but what intrigued me the most was a volume on the bottom of the box by Henry David Thoreau. The title was A Week On the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and it was publi£hed in 1849. It was definitely a first edition, and in surprisingly GOOD condition.
I quickly payed the dollar and went on my way, confident I had made a discovery. My best hopes were confirmed when I later showed it to an affluent, book-collecting friend. He immediately offered me $2,000 for it, well knowing it was worth even more.

I was lucky. Not many book collectors find valuable first edition books at garage sales. But being an antique collector/dealer, I am out there every day, searching for that elusive sleeper. That has, most likely, increased my luck. As far as book collecting is concerned, my discovery was more the exception than the rule. Most valuable and collectible books are obtained at book auctions such as Sotheby’s New York, Swann Galleries and other auction houses. In fact, book auctions are one of the primary factors that go into determining the retail market value of books.

A few words of caution about book auctions is in order. Auction prices can be very misleading, and they need to be considered with care. What causes a book to be sold at a certain price involves several factors. The most important of these factors is condition. The following condition gradings are used by most book dealers:

• MINT – As new, unread.
• FINE – Close to new, showing slight signs of age but without any defects.
• VERY GOOD – A used book that shows some sign of wear but still has no defects.
• GOOD – A book that shows normal wear and aging, but is still complete and with no major defects.
• FAIR – A worn and used copy, probably with cover tears and other defects.
• READING COPY – A poor copy with text complete, but not much else going for it.
If a book is rare, it will have some value whatever its condition, but only a fraction of what it would be worth if it were FINE or MINT. A book valued at $100 in FINE condition is virtually valueless in poor condition. If a book is missing a page, is water-damaged or has any other defect, more times than not its value drops to near nothing. Even an extensively restored book loses considerable value, which is not necessarily true for a restored painting or piece of furniture.

I try to buy only tight, clean and complete books in VERY GOOD to MINT condition. Having an original dust cover, if it had one, and being signed by the author are obviously desirable attributes, thus increasing the value of the book. I only buy and collect first-edition books. The reason: Most of the time the first edition or first issue of a popular book is the most sought after and therefore the most valuable.
First-edition collectors, like myself, are by nature hard to please. We would like each of our first editions to look new. The optimum situation is to find all first edition books in MINT to near-MINT condition, with original dust covers, and signed by the author. But this ideal is not always attainable.
Another factor which determines the value of a book at auction, and therefore its market value, is who bought it and for what purpose? A dealer buying a book for his stock would not pay as much as one buying it for a particular wealthy customer who “just has to have it” for his collection. In addition, what part (beginning or end) of the auction the book is sold can play a part in determining price. At the tail end of a sale, even book buyers can be tired and uninterested, and therefore not very eager to bid. Not to be overlooked is the economic climate of the country at the time of the sale. In prosperous times, bidders are willing to pay more to get what they want.

Refer to popular price guides to determine the current market value of various collectible books.

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