Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2012 Issue

Free or Nearly Free: Great Finds that Cost $0 or Next to $0 & Sell for a Great Deal More

Zero $$

My dad, the great book seller Morton “Jock” Netzorg, a dealer for well over 50 years, had all kinds of rules about how to make money selling books. But Netzorg’s #1 rule was: “What you pay for it has nothing to do with what it’s worth.”

Looking over my list of sales so far this year I was surprised to notice how many of the things that were profitable came in the door for free – found sitting on the curb waiting for the garbage man or were, if not free, nearly free – cost to me $1 or even less.

I sent a query to an on-line list where dealers chat among themselves and asked did this happen to other sellers, and if so how often? My in-box rapidly filled with many examples from those with similar experiences.

Buy low, Sell high

There were too many stories to share them all, but here are just a few examples:

* The Florida dealer who got a first edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous Blue Book for $1 and sold it the next day for $150.

* The North Carolina dealer who paid $2 for a ratty looking antique astronomy book with a big black ink spot on the cover who resold it within 24 hours for over $200.

* The Alabama used book seller who bought a box of vintage golf course score cards for $10. So far he estimated he’s made over $2,000 on what’s been sold and he still has a third of them left.

* The Iowa dealer who got a first edition, second state of the Hobbit for a quarter and resold it for $1200.

* The seller in Europe who picked up a batch of older books in English for a few pounds. In the lot he found some early mystery and detective stories. Just two of the best ones brought over £900.

*The retired dealer from the East Coast who often helped haul away freebies. In the pile he found Portrait of an Artist by James Joyce. It was a ratty copy and a later printing. He estimated its value at about $2. But when he discovered it was signed by Joyce the price went up steeply. He sold it for $4,000.

*A California seller told about a signed biography of a billiard player, “I paid about 35 cents for a paperback. There were none listed for sale online and I had no idea how much the book was worth, so I listed it on eBay with a starting bid of $50.00. I ended up selling it for $1750.”

It happens all the time

Almost everybody who wrote said this has happened to them not just once, but with reassuring regularity. Some added the proviso, “These kinds of finds do not come along often enough to make a living from them,” but the consensus was great deals do happen and often enough to make things interesting.

Even in the days of on-line information galore, you’d think people would look it up before they throw it out. But they either don’t know how or could care less, as a result good stuff can come your way and sometimes it’s free, gratis and for nothing.

But as the seller your part of the deal is to be looking for it.

What you bring to the equation is curiosity, knowledge and an intuitive sense of who else might not only want what you have, but might actually be willing to pay for it.

The things I find that seem to have the best margins are usually non-fiction pre-ISBN books and vintage or antique ephemera. I find them because I’m looking.

Looking means really looking

Looking is not just a glance. Looking means not just the outside but the inside, not just the front but the back. Not just the book itself but what’s laid inside the book, not just the subject but why someone would be interested in the subject. Not just the condition but the content. Not just the text but the pictures, the dust jacket, the credits, the inscription. Not just books but magazines, photos, and every other kind of paper. Just because somebody else has tossed it doesn’t mean it is without value.

Here’s the way one Massachusetts seller put it: “Right now I am going through a few mixed boxes of ephemera from an ABAA member who does primarily books
and all this paper would have slowed him down. So I am going through the paper one piece at a time and I am making a pretty penny. He already got what he needed from these lots.


She went on to say, “I pulled out a few items and sent a box to still ANOTHER dealer who does even more specialized material. It's sort of a trickle down bookselling.”

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

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