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, Mar 12:</b> Walt Whitman. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> First edition, first issue, SIGNED in block letters by Whitman. 1855. $200,000 to $300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Isaac Newton's copy of John Greave's <i>Pyramidographia,</i> London, 1646. $50,000 to $70,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Colonel John Mosby. Robert E. Lee's autograph letter to Samuel Cooper reporting on Mosby's exploits, with Cooper's autograph note ordering his appointment to Major.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Gyula Halasz Brassai. Large archive of autograph and typed letters, over 260, to his family including his wife Gilberte, 1947-1978. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Archive of drawings and letters from Harper Lee to Charles Carruth, including an inscribed first edition of <i>To Kill a Mockingbird.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> VESALIUS, ANDREAS. 1514-1564. <i>De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.</i> Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. 1578-1657. <i>De motu cordis & sanguinis in animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Leiden: Joannis Maire, 1639. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> BERENGARIO DA CARPI, GIACOMO. 1460-1530. <i>Isagogae breves perlucide ac uberrimae in Anatomiam humani corporis.</i> Bologna: Benedictus Hectoris, 15 July 1523. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN. 1706-1790. <i>Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America…</i> London, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> BENIVIENI, ANTONIO. 1443-1502. <i>De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis.</i>Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1507. $8,000 to $12,000
  • <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Greco (Gioachino). <i>Primo modo del gioco de Partito…</i> Manuscript, France, 1624 or 1625. A collection of partiti, or 'chess problems' by one of the most important figures in the history of chess. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Herodotus. <i>Historiae,</i> translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla and edited by Antonio Mancinelli. Venice, 1494. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Darwin (Charles). Autograph Letter signed to his cousin Reginald Darwin, Down, Beckenham, Kent, 27th March 1879. £12,000 to £18,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Nicolay (Nicolas de). <i>The Navigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie,</i> first edition in English, Imprinted at London by Thomas Dawson, 1585. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Saint-Exupéry (Antoine de). <i>The Little Prince,</i> number 66 of 525 copies signed by the author, 1943. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Catlin (George, 1796-1872). Tuch-ee, A Celebrated War Chief of the Cherokees, watercolour, [circa 1834]. £6,000 to £8,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Genetics.- A collection of c.300 pamphlets on genetics comprising many of the major contributions from the first half of the 20th century. £5,000 to £7,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> India.- Rajasthan.- Kota School (probably late 18th c.). Elephant in a landscape with chains around his feet, brush and black ink with opaque pigments. £5,000 to £7,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Commelin (Caspar). <i>Horti medici Amstelaedamensis plantae rariores et exoticae,</i> first edition, 48 finely hand-coloured engraved plates, Leiden, F.Haringh, 1706. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Plague-water and cookery & medical recipes.- Jackson (Mrs Sarah). Medical and cookery recipes, manuscript in several hands, title and 134pp., 1688-1755. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Vernet (<i>After</i> Joseph, 1714-1789). <i>[Vues des ports de France],</i> sixteen plates (of 18), etchings and engravings by Charles Nicolas Cochin fils and Jacques Philippe Le Bas, [c.1760-1780]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Detmold (Edward Julius, 1883-1957). Parrots and Butterflies, watercolour. £2,500 to £3,500.
  • <b>Koller Auctions: Books & Autographs. March 26, 2019</b>
    <b>Koller Auctions, Mar 26:</b> Jacques Gamelin. <i>Nouveau recueil d'osteologie et de myologie, dessine d'apres nature...</i> 2 parts in 1 vol., large folio, 82 copper plates. CHF 12,000 to 18,000
    <b>Koller Auctions, Mar 26:</b> Melchior Pfintzing. <i>Die geverlicheiten und einsteils geschichten des loblichen streytparen...</i> 118 woodcut engravings, first edition. CHF 30,000 to 50,000
    <b>Koller Auctions, Mar 26:</b> Book of hours. Handwritten Latin text on vellum. With 17 large miniatures, Flanders, c.1460. CHF 70,000 to 90,000
    <b>Koller Auctions, Mar 26:</b> Maria Sibylla Merian. <i> Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium,</i> 72 copper plates, Den Haag, 1726. CHF 60,000 to 90,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Princess Diana, group of 6 ALS to the editor of British Vogue, 1989-92. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing with news after pledging support to King George III against the American rebels, 1776. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Ulysses S. Grant, photograph dated & signed as President, portrait by Brady, 1875. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Alexander Graham Bell, ALS, accepting an invitation to tea during his only trip to Japan, 1898. $1,000 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Nikola Tesla, signature & date on his monogrammed correspondence card, 1935. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Richard Wagner, ALS, concerning his opera Rienzi, 1869. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, autograph note signed, requesting the address of Yvette Guilbert, 1895. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Claude Monet, ALS, to painter Harry Lachman, complaining that his vision has not improved, 1920s. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Friedrich Hölderlin, autograph manuscript, unsigned, 7 lines quoting Michael Denis's <i>Ossians und Sineds Lieder.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Guestbook for Lüchow's restaurant, over 400 signatures, including W.H. Auden, Grace Kelly & drawings by Charles Addams, NYC, 1950-56. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> George Washington, lottery ticket, signed, 1768. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 21:</b> Vaslav Nijinsky, postcard dated & signed, showing a drawing of him in <i>Schéhérazade,</i> 1916. $2,500 to $3,500.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Books & Illustrated Art including Cartoons. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Silver Binding.- [Torah], German 13 Loth silver binding, hinged clasp, 12mo, Sulzbach, 1805. £2,500 to £3,500.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Picasso (Pablo). Minotaure vaincu, plate 89 from La Suite Vollard, etching, dated 29 May 1933, pencil, plate 190 x 265 mm, Paris, A. Vollard, 1939. £5,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Dali (Salvador) & Alighieri (Dante). <i>La Divina Commedia,</i> 6 vols, NUMBER 478 of 2,900 copies, 100 numbered colour lithograph plates by Salvador Dalì, folio, Verona, 1963-1964. £3,000 to £4,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Books & Illustrated Art including Cartoons. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Miniature Sepher Torah Nevi'im U'Kethuvim, prepared by Menachem M. Scholz, original cloth, housed within original gilt tooled metal case, with magnifying glass inset, 33x25 mm, Warsaw, c. 1880. £1,200 to £1,800.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Scarfe (Gerald). ‘Men of Snow’ [Tony Blair, William Hague & 'Robin' Cook], original ink, watercolour & gouache drawing, signed, 600 x 435 mm, n.d. with 2 others (3). £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Francklyn (Gilbert), Paine (Thomas). <i>Rights of Man…</i>, FIRST EDITION [and] <i>Rights of Man. Part the Second…,</i> Printed for J. S. Jordan, 1791-92, [and 1 other]. £700 to £1,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Books & Illustrated Art including Cartoons. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Chagall (Marc). Le Jeu des Acrobates (Acrobats at Play), HORS COMMERCE PROOF, lithograph, from The Lithographs of Chagall, 320 x 240 mm, André Sauret, 1963. £1,800 to £2,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> [Harris (John)]. <i>The History of The Old Woman who had Three Sons Jerry, James, and John…,</i> 12mo, J. Harris, 1815. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Royal Binding.- Staël-Holstein (Germaine de). <i>De la littèrature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales…,</i> 2 vols, second edition, Crapelet, Paris, [1801]. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Books & Illustrated Art including Cartoons. March 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Ancient History.- La Baune (Jacques de). <i> Panegyrici Veteres,</i> Paris, 1676. [with] Wesseling (Petrus, ed.). <i> Vetera Romanorum itineraria…</i> £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Edward (Gibbon). <i> History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire…</i> Multiple editions and languages [English and French]. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar 28:</b> Curtis (William). <i> Flora Londinensis,</i> FIRST EDITION, 2 vols in 3. 119 hand-coloured plates of 454. £500 to £700

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