June 24, 2016
Value of an Incunable – What’s the Real Biel?
With a specialty in early printed books, we are often sent rare books to evaluate. One learns in life quickly enough (even as a toddler) to be suspicious of what we are told, and this carries through to the rare book trade – especially with regards to boxes, labels, and especially old bookseller descriptions.
This fine folio was handsomely presented in a protective cloth box with a morocco label proudly announcing “Biel Collectorium 1495.” That would make the book an “incunable” – a book printed in the earliest days of printing before 1500. Any book that can rightfully be called an incunable has a certain cachet in the world of rare book collectors and often warrants a high price or premium just for being that old. Indeed, one rarely sees an incunable for less than a few thousand dollars except perhaps in a poor or incomplete state.
It is difficult in this case to place blame for the incorrect identification on the previous owner. Sometimes, attempts are made to deceive or inflate value, but this misidentification might more rightly be based on a reliance old bibliographical records that had recorded this seemingly undated book as being printed in 1495. Even Worldcat.com still lists a copy still with the date.
In fact, we can with a little research quickly discover that this book is referenced by the standard works on early printed books including Adams B1999; Hain-Copinger 3187; ISTC ib00653000. All of them state that the book was printed in Tübingen y Johann Otmar for Friedrich Meynberger, after 23 April 1501.
Well, what is the difference between a book printed in 1501 and one printed in 1499? – a lot actually even if it is only buyer’s psychology. The paper is the same rag paper as they used only two years early and for all intents and purposes little changed in the printing world technologically in those two years to justify any difference in reverence or price. Nevertheless, this is a “post-incunable” and as such it just does not have the added prestige of being officially one of the first printed books that collectors covet. It is disappointingly not a “fifteener” as some old time booksellers used to say.
Further hurting the value of this book is that it is only volumes three & four of a four volume set. Thus despite its handsome and mostly original blind-stamped binding, its attractive printing and rubrication, and it being a work Gabriel Biel, one of the most distinguished theologians of the late Middle Ages, it nevertheless is worth less than $1000 at auction.