Getting Rare Books Appraised: What to Know

Have you ever thought about getting rare books appraised? With many of us spending more time at home than ever, home organization projects are certainly beckoning. When boxes in attics, basements, and garages see sunlight for the first time in ages, treasures sometimes sparkle among the junk. If you’ve come across an old or unusual book, you might be curious to know if it’s worth any money. Unless you’re already an expert, it’s hard to know. Where to start?

What is a rare book?

If you look at the Econ 101 version of rare books, simple supply and demand determines a given book’s rarity. If demand outstrips supply, the book is rare and its price will increase. Demand itself is tricky to understand. There’s demand for a book if it’s collectible. A book can be collectible for a variety of reasons, including the author, title, and topic; the press that printed it; the artwork inside it; and its significance in the history of the books, to name just a few. Not every book is collectible. Rebecca Baumann, Head of Public Services at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, answered some of my questions about rare books. They noted, “you may have the only copy in existence of a book—but it still won’t sell for anything if no one wants it.”

The good news is that book collectors have interests as diverse as books themselves. If a book catches your eye for any reason, it might be something other people are on the hunt for. Like many ineffable things we assign value to, like art or antiques, trends can drive what is considered collectible. Anyone whose heart’s been broken by crashes in the beanie baby or baseball card market can share their war stories. With an investment of time, something that’s only moderately collectible now may become a hotter commodity in the future (this is the case with romance novels, I believe!). We’ll make a case for collecting those things that fascinate you regardless of value in a bit. Nevertheless, if you want to know definitively what a book is worth right now, you should get it professionally appraised. 

Why get books appraised?

There are four main reasons for getting rare books appraised:

  • Selling books can be more profitable if you know their market value.
  • Donations of books can be tax write-offs.
  • Insurance for your books can protect against potential loss or damage.
  • Books can be part of an estate that you’re willing or inheriting.

A fifth reason, of course, would be satisfying personal curiosity. As you might imagine, there are intricacies to the above scenarios. You will want experienced guidance to ensure you’re staying above board.

books in glass bookcase
Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

Who appraises books?

If you have a local used book store that sells rare or antiquarian books, consult them first. Many such stores offer appraisals. Reach out and ask how it works. Appraisers generally charge money for their services. They may be able to provide you a free estimate for an appraisal, given a cursory description of the collection. If you visit the shop with books in hand, they may, out of courtesy, tell you with a brief look whether you have something worthy of more time and research. Additionally, they may refer you elsewhere if the books you have are not within their realm of expertise. If you own something valuable, take the time to find the most qualified person to evaluate it.

Rare books are truly rare. Also, an appraiser’s time is very valuable, perhaps $100–200 dollars per hour or more in the U.S. Therefore, appraisal is the best option if you’re quite sure what you have is worth more than that, or if law requires it. If your reason for getting rare books appraised is merely to satisfy curiosity, it will come at a price!

Where Else to Find Experts

If you are lucky enough to live near a library with special collections or a rare book and manuscript division, you may be tempted to consult the librarians there. You might get some useful information about your books, but you will not leave with an official appraisal. Rebecca Baumann, commenting on the woefully understaffed and underfunded nature of libraries, shared, “I want people to know that it’s not that librarians don’t want to help them, but sometimes we don’t have a lot of time and have to make difficult decisions about what to prioritize. And of course professional ethics bar us from doing any kind of monetary appraisal. But I would also say don’t be afraid to contact a library with questions about your old books; we love to help when we can!”

As a note, there’s no certification in the United States that confers someone professional book appraising status. Appraisers may be a part of The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a professional organization. Their website allows you to search by geographic area and specialty. If you are outside the United States, search for professional organizations in your country that mention rare or antiquarian books. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers may also be a helpful resource.

Important Notes on Ethics and Capitalism

When someone appraises a book for you, they will not offer to buy it from you. That’s an ethical guideline and not necessarily a legal one. If you think about the power the appraiser has to potentially deceive you, it’s clear why. If you wish to sell a book after the appraisal, find another bookseller who will give you a fair price. Prepare to accept much less than the appraised value.

I hate to get all capitalist on you, but time is money. To take that adage in an Einsteinian direction, space is money too. Booksellers face overhead costs both in storing their wares and in the labor required to find willing customers for their books. If you’ve had your book appraised, and another seller offers to buy it, they are likely to offer you 25–50% of that appraised value. They have to turn a profit to stay in business, after all. Not only are sellers’ time and space money, so is their reputation. Sure, you could whack your book up on eBay at the dream asking price given by your appraisal. But without any bona fides, why should a buyer take a risk on you?

Doing Your Own Research

If getting rare books appraised isn’t an option because of prohibitive cost, you can still forge ahead. With a book’s title, author, publisher, and publishing date, as well as information about its edition and overall condition, you can likely turn up another copy of your book for sale on the internet. Websites like AbeBooks, BookFinder, and AddALL are fun to poke around on.

You can narrow searches by details of a book, such as whether it has an author’s signature. You’ll notice the presence of a dust jacket is vital to the value of hardcover books that originally had one. And of course, everyone knows first editions are valuable. I reiterate: without expertise, it’s tricky to know what you have. Entire books are devoted to understanding first editions, like First Editions: A Guide to Identification. There are also online resources to help you decode those first few pages of a book, including our own article on first editions.

The Limitations of Self Research

When I say it’s hard to know what you have, it’s because books can have details you couldn’t know to look for. For example, it’s difficult to ascertain whether your old book has all its pages without a complete copy to compare it to. Also, repairs or treatments that take a trained eye to notice can affect prices dramatically.

Furthermore, if your search reveals what you believe are comparable copies of a book you own, don’t get too excited about the highest prices. For one, prices are sometimes suspicious and inexplicably high. The New York Times couldn’t quite get to the root of those mysteries. Even for prices within the realm of reality, those more expensive books are sitting there, unbought. Frequently, other copies in similar condition undercut that price. We’re back at supply and demand.

Beyond internet searches, I recommend reading up on book collecting to understand more about what you have. Some recommended books include Book Collecting: A Modern Guide, ABC for Book Collectors, and Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century. If you want to read anecdotes of those true lightning strikes, when people find amazing rarities in unlikely places, check out Rare Books Uncovered.

A Dream Destroyed

For more inside info on the business of appraisal, I corresponded with Rebecca Romney. She’s the cofounder of the rare book firm Type Punch Matrix, author of the fantastic book Printer’s Error, and a fan favorite of bookish Pawn Stars watchers. She underscored the importance of seeing a book in person to properly evaluate it. (This can also be a matter of legality if your appraisal is heading to the IRS or other government entity.)

Those of us who watch shows like Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow at least partially for the schadenfreude (my people!) will appreciate the anecdote she shared that pulled back the reality television curtain a bit. In a Pawn Stars segment you catch watch on YouTube, she evaluates a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird.

The owner of the book in the segment mentions she’s hoping to get $5000 for the book. That number might seem ambitious, but Rebecca had seen photos of the book before the show was recorded. From the photos alone, she thought the book would be worth $7500-$9500, hence the seller’s optimism. Upon seeing the book in person, Rebecca saw the flaws that brought the value much lower. As Rebecca walks away from the encounter, she embodies the moniker “Destroyer of Dreams” she joked about in our correspondence. The owner ended up selling the book for $500.

Sentimental Value

The honest truth is that for most books, their value is primarily sentimental. If a financial shortcoming necessitates the selling of one’s belongings, there’s certainly no shame in that. But it’s worth a pause if you love books, especially if the book in question belonged to a loved one. In fact, qualities that may decrease the monetary value of a book to collectors—dog-eared pages, marginalia, a cracked spine that causes a book to fall open to a beloved passage—may boost the sentimental value for you.

Rebecca Baumann spoke of honoring these qualities in books, using the family Bible President Joe Biden used at his inauguration as an example. They said, “We get offers of donations of ‘old family Bibles’ like this at the library all the time, and we turn them down. These Bibles were printed in great numbers and there are thousands of surviving copies. But THIS particular copy of the Bible is valuable and special because of its history with the Biden family. They have written in it and recorded important family events in it. (And of course, we would accept a donation of a family Bible if it had been used in a Presidential inauguration!) So I encourage people to use books as the Bidens have used their Bible—make them the witnesses to your life—leave something behind for history to discover.”

A Sample Find

I’ve had a few professional and volunteer experiences wherein I processed donated books. Some simply needed recycling (it’s okay to recycle books, I promise). Most were headed for the proverbial bargain bin. Still, there were plenty of interesting items that passed through my hands. I once dealt with a lot of Best in Children’s Books, a hardcover series from the 1950s and 1960s. The books offered short stories, excerpts from longer works, factoids, and games to play. The hardcover volumes had their dust jackets and seemed in rather nice condition to my admittedly amateur eye.

Page from Best in Children's Books featuring Andy Warhol's art. Photo by Isabelle Popp.
An early Andy Warhol piece. Tag yourself: I’m the duck with sunglasses.

My supervisor had initially wanted me to get rid of them, but they had a charming midcentury aesthetic. Curiosity compelled me to give them a second look. Sure enough, these books are collectible, especially the ones that have some of Andy Warhol’s earliest professional art in them. A genuinely delightful find! The asking price for similar volumes online ranged from $20 to $90. Not exactly the down payment on a summer home, but enough for me to honor my eye and my curiosity.

What if it’s worth nothing?

Take heart if a book intrigues you but yields no monetary value when you look into it. You might just be a vanguard. I’ve written before about developing a collecting philosophy, but Rebecca Baumann explains it best:

“The most visionary collectors are the kooks who are collecting things that no one else wants—things that cost nothing. There will always be someone collecting expensive books and beautiful books and ‘important’ books—I put important in quotation marks because importance, worth, and value is always determined by the culturally dominant group: usually wealthy, straight, cis, white, able men. But it takes a special kind of person to see the value in trash—the things that dominant culture does not think are worth saving. Be the person who saves something that no one else will. Some of the coolest things I have seen as a librarian could easily have been thrown out with the trash: doodles, handbills, advertisements, ephemera, shopping lists, and cheap pulp magazines. Book collecting should be an investment in enjoyment, not money. Collect the things that make you happy—and then share them with the world so that others can learn about what you enjoy.”

In the End

When it comes to getting rare books appraised, the best lesson is to seek out expert advice. Put the actual books in front of their eyes. Another lesson is not to let your eyeballs turn into cartoon dollar signs. The biggest gain from dealing with a potentially rare book may be knowledge, and that’s never a bad thing.

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