One of the hardest tasks for a seller or owner of an antiquarian book collection, is evaluating or determining a book’s fair value. Whether preparing to sell or appraise your books for any reason, the unique attributes inherent in the world of rare books, deems the task “approximate”.
Finding out a book’s current value, in theoretical terms, comes down to what a buyer is willing to pay for it. How valuable a book is, it usually depends on a number of factors including scarcity, condition, special features such as autographs and inscriptions by authors, and a factor I refer to as investment appeal. A buyer of an antique or scarce book is usually a collector who is potentially looking to add value to her/his collection by acquiring a certain grouping of complementary hard to find books. A book dealer is investing in a category of books that she/he specializes in, with a primary intention to sell for profit. A measure of a book’s investment appeal is probably the most difficult factor to quantify.
The fact that no two books are alike complicates things a bit. The same title by the same author having the same publisher and edition, printing, state etc., does not necessarily have the same value. Other criteria, such as unique features (signed, inscribed, autographed), the condition of the book, the timing of the evaluation or the purpose of the appraisal can contribute to the evaluation. A case-by-case determination can vary considerably resulting in significant fluctuations. Take as an example a rare book by the name, Codex Seraphinianus, first edition limited to 4000 copies printed by FMR (Franco Maria Ricci of Italy) in 1981. The book sold on Abebooks in March of 2010 for 6000 US Dollars. A year later the same book sold for 955 Euro, on Ebay. Same book, similar condition, different channel, different time, different seller location.
Combining historical data from past pricing sale activity, while adjusting upward or downward to accommodate pertinent current criteria, is in theory the ideal process. A number of different agencies have been tracking past sale information:
1) American Book Prices Current (ABPC) reports on prices brought for specific items in a specific condition at major auction houses in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.
2) Bookman’s Price Index (BPI). Some 100-200 antiquarian booksellers in United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom report their prices to BPI.
Once the historical pricing is determined and all current unique criteria factored in, a final step is channel determination. Channel is important since a book placed in an auction is exposed to different market conditions than a book placed for sale on a shelf in a local bookstore. If the purpose of the evaluation is to price a book for sale, then expected returns are dependent on the sale channel. Auctions are usually used to quickly liquidate a tangible asset, within current market conditions and within a relatively short time frame compared to say listing the asset for sale on Amazon.
As with any tangible asset, time is a prime contributor to value fluctuations. A long-term approach to maintaining pricing up-to-date is extremely important. How often to re-evaluate and adjust a book’s value, is a topic for a future date.