Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2003 Issue

The Price is Wrong -- How Much is that Book Really Worth?

Utah1

Value of this book depends on whether the “two large and accurate maps” (fine print) are present.


By Mike Stillman


We’ve all seen the long lists on the bookselling sites. Abebooks, in particular, can easily have dozens of copies of a book available, even of ones once thought to be fairly uncommon. With 45 million books posted for sale, you know there are going to be many duplicates. And, the pricing can be all over the board. This can be confusing to the buyer and seller alike. The buyer doesn’t know which to buy; the seller doesn’t know what price to ask if he or she has a copy to sell.

This is all new to the trade. A few years ago, which means pre-internet, almost any old book appeared rare. You could find a copy of the latest Harry Potter book in virtually any bookstore. However, if you came across a book printed in 1887 at one store, the chances of finding that exact same title in any other bookstore in your area were slim. Even if the book was not rare at all, it could appear to be as rare as the Bay Psalm Book to the uninitiated. So, what was that book worth?

Unfortunately, there is no Kelly Blue Book for old books. Experienced book dealers, with access to older auction records, catalogues, and their own knowledge, had a reasonably good idea. The rest of us, including inexperienced booksellers, traders, and collectors, generally didn’t have a clue. Some booksellers undoubtedly pulled numbers out of the air. Those looking to sell books discovered in their attics surely did the same. Dreamers priced them high; those looking to clear out space low. But, what were they really worth?

Today, this “guesstimating” has been exposed. Prices set by 20 dealers scattered over 50 states and a few countries are now all visible together on one internet site. The price of $100 set by a local dealer is no longer the only price a collector will see. That price can now be seen in comparison to 19 others, and the dealer may look reasonable, greedy, or like a source for bargains. But we still don’t know what that book is actually worth.

Part of the trouble here is in understanding what is meant by “worth.” We all want to see a price guide which states a value. We like certainty. Something for which there is a healthy supply and transparent pricing history, such as most coins or stamps, can be readily valued. Unfortunately, this is not true of books. There are too many different books, few printed in anything approaching the quantity of most stamps or coins. There are no price guides available.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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