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>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.

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