It’s the (Book) Antiques Road ShowWith Kenneth Gloss of the Brattle Book Shop

- by Michael Stillman

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Ken Gloss appraises an old book for its owner.


How can you tell whether you have a first edition? Generally if it says it’s a first edition, it is, though sometimes exact reprints are exactly that. They even reprint the title page word for word. Usually, if it says it’s a later edition, it’s not a first, although not even this is certain. Some books, he explains, started with printings such as “fifteenth edition,” in the hopes would-be buyers would conclude that it was a very popular book and therefore one they must have.

Bibliographies, which spell out differences between varying editions, are a good place to look to determine whether an edition is a first. And then there’s always copyright vs. printing dates. If these two are the same, there’s a good chance it is a first edition. If the copyright date is much earlier than the printing date, it is more likely a later edition.

Dust jackets can and often do make all of the difference when it comes to 20th century books. This leads to an important point. A lot of collecting is for prestige, he explains. People who can afford it will pay top dollar for the very best copy, but may pay nothing for something less. Absence of a dust jacket, or even a torn one, makes the copy less than perfect. Some books are so old and rare that there may be nothing but fair copies left, and those can be very valuable. However, where mint copies are in existence, the drop off in value can be substantial between mint and good. In other words, condition is very important if not crucial, and unfortunately, many of those old books we have in the attic have not been well cared for over the years.

Another issue is signatures and associations. How much does an author’s signature or notes add to the value of a book? That depends on the author, Mr. Gloss explains. If the author is significant, his signature can be valuable, but if the author is not significant, his signature is also likely to be insignificant. Another factor is whether the author signed many books. For example, a book signed by J.D. Salinger is likely to be valuable as Salinger is a reclusive person who rarely signs his books.

“Association” is a term that is used to indicate that a particular book associates one famous significant figure with another. An association copy of a book might be one given by General George Washington, for instance, to his trusted military right hand man, or the word association might be used to indicate, say, Melville’s copy of Moby Dick with his notes throughout. If you own either of the afore described books, get yourself to an appraiser immediately as you may well have hit lotto! However, association copies of books are extremely uncommon, especially in attics or family trunks.