We often hear from clients that they want to know the value of their vintage books. Many of you have books that have graced your shelves for 40 or 50 years, or you may have volumes that you have inherited from family members.
It’s a common belief that if books are old, then they must be worth a lot of money. While that may be true in some instances, sadly the majority of older books in our homes do not have much monetary value in a resale market. Christopher Lancette of Orion’s Attic has spent many years both collecting books for his own enjoyment, and following the value of books in his antique and collectible business. Here’s his take on the current market for older books:
Determining the Value of Vintage Books
Books represent one of the most complicated fields there is in the world of antiques and collectibles. No single post here could teach you everything you need to know, but these tips will help you start to form a realistic understanding of what you’re up against when trying to sell books.
Age alone doesn’t make a book valuable. In fact, age by itself is rarely even a factor in determining a book’s value. Don’t get excited by year of publication.
Four factors determine what a book is really worth. Value is always determined by condition, appeal, rarity and demand. If it’s a commonly found book (or even a rare one) but there’s no demand for it, there’s no value. With some exceptions, a book in poor condition is worth little – even if it’s rare. If you own a high-demand book that’s in great condition, looks good and is rare, you may be sitting on a pretty penny.
On the other hand, there are some real winners out there. First editions of popular titles, or sometimes a rare nonfiction most people have never heard of, may have high resale value. If you have first-edition Walden, or first run, pristine volume from a great author of the 20th century, you may be able to cash in.
A note of caution, however: When you are researching the value of older books, don’t be deceived by “asking” prices. You may see a book like one you have with a big price tag on it online. That’s an asking price. You have to dig deeper to find “sold” prices, and you can never really know how long it took for a seller to find a buyer.
How Vintage Books are Sold
There’s not much demand for most old and rare books. In our experience as estate liquidators, few things sell more slowly or sporadically than old books. When you’re liquidating a large collection, dealers including me can rarely afford to pay much for them. We’re taking on a monstrous amount of back-breaking work just to get them out of your house and transport them, and then we could be stuck with them for ages.
I’m a book collector myself. I know to the penny how much I’ve spent on my collection. If my wife suddenly had to sell all my books, there’s maybe 5 percent of my books that could be sold one at a time. The rest would go to auction to sell in box lots or shelf lots. My wife would get maybe 10 percent of what I paid for the books (even less if sold at an estate sale).
When I buy out collections, even I’m taking most of them to auction and taking my chances there rather than letting them pile up for years waiting for buyers. Few modern hardbacks except first editions by huge authors, or that are signed, are worth selling individually – off to the land of box lots they go. Paperbacks are generally best suited for donation.
Should You Try to Sell Your Vintage Books?
At the end of the day, the key is to always do a little research to get some idea of what you have, and then consult with a well-known, reputable dealer or book-specialty auction house. Selling old and/or rare books yourself, one at a time, is not a headache you want to take on. It’s not one I take on lightly, either — and I love books.
Christopher Lancette is the owner of Orion’s Attic, a full-service appraisal, estate liquidation and home clean out company serving the Washington DC area.
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