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One of the most common questions I get asked is “How much is my old Bible worth?” The Bible is the greatest bestseller of all time, and you can imagine how many copies have been preserved on account of their importance to families and their descendants. As a result, many English Bibles – even when old – often fetch quite modest sums. They become more expensive as they get back into the 17th century (but still remain relatively affordable). In this video, I will value an unusual 1649 King James Bible – printed in the year of the execution of Charles I – which still retains elements of the older Geneva editions. While it is not possible to make generalizations based on one specific example, I try to give some insights into what makes a particular edition or copy of the Bible more collectible than others.
I am often asked “What is this antique book worth?” The adage that “something is worth what someone will pay” is not a satisfactory or helpful answer. In the antiquarian book world, when giving a professional opinion of value, it is often helpful to consult actual action records in the databases for comparable copies that have sold, as well as other retail copies on the market (primarily through collectible and out of print book search engines like Abebooks.com). It is also particularly important to assess the actual copy of the work at hand to look for any distinguishing characteristics that can increase the value such as provenance, binding, condition etc.
Here is a copy of a work I was recently asked to evaluate. The book is an 1810 copy of Henry Fuseli’s Lectures of Paintings. Fuseli’s style had a considerable influence on many younger British artists, most importantly William Blake.
When examining the auction records, one can easily find that a copy sold at Bloomsbury Auctions in London 2013 for 69 GBP. Certainly that can be used as a benchmark evaluation for the book since that is an actual sales price. Perhaps if this copy went into auction, it would receive only scant attention from buyers and a cursory examination, and achieve a similar price.
Nevertheless, the book appears increasingly scarce in commerce. There are no copies at present listed on the major book search engines for purchase at the touch of a button. This gives one, as they say in retail, some pricing power (at least some limited pricing power as it assumes demand).
What is lovely about this book is that there is an engraved vignette at end (“Ancora imparo: Mr Angelo Bonarroti”) by Blake. This engraving directly links two of the world’s greatest artists: Blake and Michelangelo. In a Blake Dictionary, S. Foster Damon writes that “Michelangelo was to Blake’s painting what Milton was to Blake’s poetry.” To a buyer that may be unfamiliar with Fuseli’s book, the possibility to own an original Blake engraving at modest cost – and one that depicts his own interpretation of the image of Michelangelo- certainly raises interest in the book.
Additionally, this copy features a rather fascinating “CLD” in gilt on the black morocco spine (in attractive contract with the earthy pebbled marbled papers). The CLD ares the initials of Caroline Lucy Scott, Lady Scott (1784–1857), the Scottish novelist. A known 18th century woman writer’s provenance is quite interesting, and I don’t recall seeing a similar placement of initials or a monogram on the side of a spine of a book, perhaps a parallel to the way a monogram might be placed on the clasp of a diary. It makes a delightful example of a bookbinding and personal ownership and that certainly raises the value in my eyes.
It would therefore not be inappropriate, given its scarcity in commerce and the attractiveness of this particular example, to put a price of $450 on it. Whether someone will pay that is, as always, another story.
I have had numerous enquiries over the years to evaluate and appraise old manuscripts. Certainly, I come across my fair share of antiphonals, graduals and choir books that once graced innumerable churches in Spain, Italy and Europe. Given their large size, the incredibly resilient vellum upon which they were written, and perhaps the respect (not always) accorded to obviously religious books, a lot have survived.
The value of such a manuscript is quite complicated and here I cannot of course go into all the particulars regarding the age, style of decoration, illuminations etc. that factor into their value. As an illustration, below is a recent one that passed through my hands- a rather elegant late 15th to 16th century Spanish antiphonal. It was almost complete with a large number pages (234 in total), albeit at some point, as is often the case, the finest pages were likely removed as specimens of the illuminated art. Still, many very attractive pen-work initials survived in Mudejar style that reflect the artwork of the individual Moors or Muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Iberia after the Christian Reconquista.
One thing that I do not do is appraise these manuscripts as the value of an average individual page multiplied by the number of pages. These are what I consider “book breaker” calculations and it is not something that I even consider. Many beautiful books have been broken over the years for their plates as well as fine atlases dismembered for their individual framable maps. Thankfully, given the economics of the trade, this has become less of an issue as complete preserved copies are often worth more as a whole than the some of their parts. However, I do find the practice continues with antiphonal and liturgical manuscripts and the economics of selling individual pages at modest prices still favors tearing such books apart.
I will write here a bit of bibliophilic heresy (I know brace yourself!) because while I do not condone the practice of breaking these manuscripts or evaluate them on that basis, I do not condemn it either. Many of these manuscripts are incomplete, and single examples (given the large surviving numbers) generally do not have singular importance in terms of what they add to our cultural or historical understanding of the period. Also, in times past, dealers like Otto Ege, who made a controversial practice of dismantling medieval manuscripts and selling the pages individually, also served the interest of scholarship in having some examples (even fragments) dispersed to many universities and a wider audience of students. Therefore, I cannot say today, given the seemingly widespread lack of interest in objects of culture in general, that something is not gained by having individual vellum leaves from such manuscripts grace ordinary living room walls.
Lord Chesterfield’s Letters were not originally intended for publication. Four hundred letters survived his son’s early death in 1768, and thankfully for literature and posterity, were published in 1768 by the son’s widow. The work became famous as a complete education manual of the 18th century, albeit the great Samuel Jonson did deride it for teaching the “”the morals of a whore”
The edition pictured here – the first American- was published in 1789 in Philadelphia. It appears to be a great rarity with only three known copies listed Worldcat and one at the American Antiquarian Society. There are also no records in ABPC or Rare Book Hub or copies at auction in many decades.
It got me to ponder what was the first American published manual of education. That honor probably goes to the New England Primer, a textbook used by students in New England and in other English settlements in North America that was first printed in Boston in 1690. With that said, the famous Primer was religious in nature and followed a tradition of combining the study of the alphabet with Bible reading.
The present volume as an educational work is entirely different and is rightfully a guide to conduct and values in every practical sense. Take the chapter on “Prejudice” which contains valid advice for even our internet age of highly partisan and fake news: “Never adopt the notions of any books you may read, or of any company you may keep, without examining whether they are just or not, or you will otherwise be liable to be hurried away by prejudices, instead of being guided by reason; and quietly cherish error instead of seeking the truth.”
I try to make it a habit of valuing books on this blog and this book presents a particular challenge. It is certainly a pleasing copy in many respects, retaining the original binding with charmingly scratched initials of its early owner. It also has some early handwritten provenance on its paste-downs. Most unfortunately it is missing one leaf, ripped from the text block in the chapter on Lying. Sadly, Chesterfield issues no admonishment or warning of the derived opprobrium for tearing out a page from a book!
A missing page can often be a fatal flaw in the antiquarian book world, but I am informed by Chesterfield to focus on virtues and not flaws. As such, given it charm and rarity, I would still value the work at $1000 at least.
As a rare book dealer, I get calls on a weekly basis to provide valuations of first editions. These requests usually involves some household names of authors of the 20th century from Faulkner to Hemingway and Steinbeck to Fitzgerald. One of the first questions that comes up is “does the book have the dust jacket?” This often leads to great disappointment as it is difficult for someone not familiar with the antiquarian and rare book market to fully appreciate the value of a dust jacket on a literary first edition. Once can see a copy of a particular first edition online for $20,000 and it can be incomprehensible how merely missing a piece of paper wrapper can reduce its value to a few hundred.
I won’t get involved in this brief post as to why dust jackets are so valuable. Suffice it to say, they can both be extremely rare given their ephemeral nature and beautiful as icons of graphic art. Here, I would rather focus on an early type of “dust jacket.” The earliest-known book dust wrapper dates from 1829 and was intended to protect a finely-bound gift book entitled Friendship’s Offering. You can read about that Bodleian treasure here. The dust jacket was therefore born as a simple protective wrapper and only later evolved into works of art and tools of marketing. Oftentimes, the earliest jackets were used to protect expensive volumes bound in fine materials such as leather or silk.
The book below is not one of those finely bound volumes but a rather inexpensively produced and issued American imprint. Specifically, it is a 1814 Boston edition (a first American edition) of “Some Details concerning General Moreau”, the French general who helped Napoleon to power, but later as a rival was banished to the United States and whose abode near Trenton eventually became the refuge of many political exiles. Nevertheless, despite this rich history and actually being a scarce imprint in commerce, the book itself is not particularly valuable if one takes values in the auction databases as a gauge. In fact, I bought it in a lot myself at the very modest price of $20 from an antique dealer at the fun DCFlea.
One can notice in the photo a sort of dust jacket on the book that is almost contemporary with the date of publication. That does not make it the earliest such jacket as I would have to make the reasonable assumption that this was not a wrapper issued by the publisher but rather placed on for protection slightly later by a reference library in Bath Maine of the American Colonization Society. The book is inscribed by Jonathan Hyde who was one of the society’s earliest members. Most interestingly, the American Colonization Society promoted the relocation of free blacks to West Africa and transported 12,000 blacks to Liberia.
So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I do try to place a monetary value on the work and give some indication of how I arrived at a figure. Despite it being a relatively early American imprint of French history, it probably would not have a market value of anything more then $100 or so. Still, with the added value of the early paper wrappers as well as its provenance and historical connection to free blacks, it has broader appeal both as a bibliographical curiosity and to the African-Americana collectors. As such, I would place a fair value more likely in the $400 range.
Monetary value aside it, it is a wonderful example of how by unfolding the story of a simple unnoticed paper jacket, history itself unfolds.