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>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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