Determining a rare book’s fair value

by The bookworm on April 28, 2011 · Market Analysis, Rare Book Education

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Melody Miller October 7, 2014 at 5:33 am

I have a copy of The Art, Science, and Philosophy of Chiropractic, by D D Palmer. It is the green book, that I believe is the 1966 reprint of the 1910 version. It is in great condition. I already have several people interested in buying it, sight unseen, but I do do know what the value of the book is. I understand that is is listed in several places as a scarce book to find. Should I just list it on bay and let the action begin? At what price? Or should I sell to one of these gentlemen?

Any suggestions you can give me will be appreciated.

Thank you,

Melody MIller

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Admin October 9, 2014 at 12:42 am

Does it have its dust jacket?

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Nikolay September 28, 2015 at 7:53 pm

Hi there, could you tell me something about the Charles Dickens ‘ Christmas Books’, London, George Routledge and sons,limited, printed by Simmons and Botten. The book is with red hard covers and has Routledge Railway Library advertiser first and last pages, twelft issue, 100 000 dated 12/2/94. Can you tell me about the number of copies and if it’s possible its value. Thank you.

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Laura Fish April 19, 2016 at 1:33 am

Hello, I would like to sell a set of Charles Dickens books published by JM Dent & Co London Doubleday & McClure Co New York 1899
I believe there are @ 40 books in all and most are in excellent condition although I am not an expert and some may be classified as “very good” & “good”.
I was gifted these by the original owner. If you have interest and think these may be worth your while, can you please email me your email address and I will send you a few pictures? Sincerely, Laura Fish. Fishonthemile@gmail.com

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Margie Cobb April 28, 2016 at 9:41 pm

I have a copy of Dunglison’s medical dictionary 1874 in fair condition, Human Physiology for students and practitioners sixth edition 1875 in fair condition and Blacks Law Dictionary fourth edition 1968 in excellent condition. Can you help me with values?

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Scott Weedman July 5, 2017 at 5:58 pm

I have a Dell 1st edition (paperback) of Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, published in October of 1971. On EBAY, I see it going for $85 and again for $19.95. That’s a big difference. Both items look identical to mine, so now I’m confused as to what mine is actually worth. Can anybody help?

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