The Rules of Antique Book Scarcity

There are many factors that contribute to the value of an antique book, manuscript, or map. Amongst them are age, of course, condition, scarcity, and trends in interests. A book that possesses some of these qualities but not others might still be valuable but it is likely compromised in the eyes of the serious collector. A very old book by an obscure author enjoying current notoriety that is missing some pages will still attract attention and a good price, but a book lacking in more than or perhaps two qualities is probably not worth a collector’s time.

All of these aspects, and others as well, affect a book’s price and should be understood by any collector. Most of these traits are self-explanatory; age is quite obvious and assessing condition, while filled with jargonistic phrases, has a clear meaning.

On the other hand, trends in collecting are determined by sentimentality and often, current affairs. Different authors, publishers, and era’s appeal to book collectors rise and fall depending on an incomprehensible and flexible set of intangible values that a marketer or psychologist would have as much luck determining as an antique expert.

Scarcity has a clear meaning but in the case of antique books is a relative term. All antique books are scarce but some are more common than others. The remainder of this article is dedicated to some rules that will help the new book collector to make educated guesses when looking at an unfamiliar title.

Recently I read William Rees-Mogg’s interesting book “How to Buy Rare Books”(1985). In it he lays out five rules that provide guidelines to determining the potential scarcity of an antique book. I have taken Mr. Rees-Mogg’s rules and expanded upon them.

1. Small books are less likely to survive than big books. Generally large books were more expensive when they were printed than smaller ones and better kept as well. Think of it like this, when you buy a new expensive hardback book it is read at home and then shelved until needed again, a cheap paper back is shoved into a purse or backpack, read on the train, exposed to all sorts weather, and likely as not tossed when completed.

2. Expensive books are more likely to survive than cheap ones, a very similar point to the one above. The more an original owner paid for a title they more likely they are to see to its health and preservation. If the original cost of a book is available to you look for relatively cheap ones that remain in good condition.

3. Children’s books are less likely to survive than those made for adults. Kids, than as now, are careless with books. They draw on them, throw them around, and use them as building blocks, house walls, and tracks for toy cars. A really old children’s book in any thing close to excellent condition is an excellent investment. Even with a ruined spine and missing pages, a lavishly illustrated children’s book can be dismantled to create framed artwork. Remember what was said about trends in book collecting and apply it double to children’s books. No genre of antique books has its value’s inflated by sentimentality than those written for children.

4. Printed material not sold bound as a book is always scarce. Newspapers, pamphlets, and other handbill-like items were nearly always burned or thrown away after reading. There are many examples of these kinds of things but individual examples of any particular advertising handbill or the like will often be nearly unique and valuable.

5. Books by authors of relatively little fame during their lifetime are likely to be quite rare. As has always been the case publishers have produced huge print runs of popular authors while printing far fewer copies of books by unknowns. This practice makes books by authors whose reputation have grown over the years of extreme interest to collectors.

Don’t forget that scarcity alone does not guarantee a book to be valuable but, all other factors being equal, a rare book will have more value than a common one. In future articles we will provide similar guidelines for determining condition and recognizing desirable editions.

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Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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