Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2003 Issue

It’s Old, But Is It Valuable?

1kingtitle

Title Page of Obituary Addresses for Vice-President William R. King


By Mike Stillman

One of the assumptions of the new collector, or the non-collector who discovers a trove of old books in the attic, is that if a book is old it must be valuable. Certainly anything dating back to the 1800’s must be rare and valuable. Instant wealth is just around the corner.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by Ken Gloss, a bookseller and participant on the “Antiques Road Show” we’ve all seen on TV. At the end, people came up to Mr. Gloss to have their books appraised. Figures like $50 or $75 or $100 were frequently heard. Not bad, but you could see that most of the owners were crestfallen. You know they were expecting to hear numbers in the thousands.

Just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Old doesn’t even necessarily mean rare, but assuming it is, it may still be worth little. The other side of the economic equation is demand. It may be old and rare, but someone has to want it, really want it, before it will bring significant money. Sadly, no one particularly wants most old books. There is no real market for them, and with no market, their value is small.

I recently pulled out a couple of old volumes that had been packed away for 35 years. They were a pair of books of speeches from Congress recognizing specific events. One was the passing of a vice-president you’ve never heard of, and the other a presentation to Congress of the sword of Andrew Jackson. Both were certainly items of American history, and each was printed in the 1850s. Neither makes particularly good reading, and if I had paid a little more attention, I would have realized right from the start that these would be of limited value.

The first volume is the Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of the Hon. William R. King, of Alabama, Vice-President of the United States. Remember him? Neither do I. He served as vice-president under Franklin Pierce, himself less than a household name. King was the William Henry Harrison of vice-presidents. Harrison was the president who died after only a month in office. King did a little better. He lasted six weeks before expiring.

King was already gravely ill with tuberculosis when he took the oath of office in Havana. Most U.S. inaugurations don’t take place in Havana, but Congress granted this privilege to King as he had gone there in hopes of recovering. He didn’t, and that’s why this little book I now hold exists. Actually, King was of advanced age for his time, 66-years-old, when he was elected vice-president, so his death was not a great shock. He had had a long and illustrious career in public service, dating back forty years, when he was elected. And despite only six weeks as vice-president, he had already served only “a heartbeat away” from the presidency. He was president pro tem of the senate, second in succession, when President Zachary Taylor died and Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Newton. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica</i>. London, 1687.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Josephus. <i>De antiquitate Judaica.</i> Lubeck, 1475-76.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Carlerius. <i>Sporta fragmentorum, Sportula fragmentorum</i>. Brussels, 1478-79.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Fridolin. <i>Der Schatzbehalter</i>. Nuremberg, 1491.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Pinder. <i>Der beschlossen gart des rosenkrantz marie</i>. Nuremberg, 1505.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Isidorus Hispalensis. <i>Synonyma de Homine</i>. Nuremberg, 1470-71.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Durer. Sammelband including <i>Underweysung der messing</i>. Nuremberg, 1525-29.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 19: 19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 28: Printed & Manuscript Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 5: African-American Fine Art</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 17: Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 19:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 26: Rare & Important Travel Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 2:<br>Old Master Through Modern Prints</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 7: Autographs</b>
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  • <b>Announcing a new Books for Sale platform hosted by Biblio</b>
    <b>List your books simultaneously on Rare Book Hub and Biblio</b>
  • <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Exodus 10:10 to 16:15. Complete Biblical scroll sheet in Hebrew, a Torah scroll panel. Middle East, ca. 10th or 11th century.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Copernicus Refuted. (Astronomy.). Scientific manuscript of a course of studies at Collège de la Trinité, Lyon. 1660s.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Israel’s War of Independence and the Early Days of the IDF. 58 photographs presented to Israel Ber, IDF officer and later convicted spy.
    <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Early Unpublished Darwin letter on the races of man. Autograph Letter Signed [to Henry Denny]. Down, Kent, June 1, [1844].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Classic Image of American Slavery. Kimball, M. H. <i>Emancipated Slaves</i>. New York: George Hanks, 1863.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> (Underground Railroad.) Scaggs, Isaac. Important Runaway Slave Poster: $500 Reward Ran away, or decoyed from the subscriber…

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