July 8, 2014


As a specialized dealer, when offering free appraisals for rare books or when making offers to purchase, I am often confronted by questions such as “should I sell these book at auction” or “should I just list the book myself on eBay?   These are perfectly legitimate questions of course.   If one is selling a rare books, naturally one wants to obtain the highest possible price.

While it is impossible to make too generalized statements about dealer prices vs. eBay or auctions houses, I can at least present an illustrative example.

We recently purchased a rare first edition of Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates– a classic of 18th century Pirate literature.   As part of our interest in taking advantage of all avenues of sale, we decided to test the market on eBay and see what the set would sell for and how that would have compared with what what we would have priced it at ourselves (a retail price) as well as what other copies have achieved at real world auctions houses.

So, first let’s start with a description of the book:


A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, and also Their Policies, Discipline, and Government [-A History of the Pyrates]. London: C. Rivington / T. Woodward, 1724-[26]. 2 volumes. 8vo., 190 x 125 mm, [xxii], 17-320; [xiv], 1-[416] pp. 3 engraved plates inc. “Blackbeard the Pirate” IN CONTEMPORARY COLOR (possibly inserted), a plate of “Ann Bonny and Mary Read”, the most famed female pirates of all time (with an additional hand-colored example loosely laid in at rear- see photos), “Captain Bartho Roberts with two ships”, partially colored in a contemporary hand, a “A New and Exact Map of Guinea”, IN CONTEMPORARY COLOR, VERY RARE and first issued for the later 4th edition and here inserted. Binding: Handsome modern three-quarter red morocco, renewed paste-downs and blanks. Notes: This is the first edition of Vol. I, which was separately published incl. subsequent edition before the publication of Vol. II. Vol. II is present here also in the first edition and for comparison the title page of the 4th edition has been bound in as well preceding the first edition title page. The added t.p. is inscribed in an 18th century hand by Mary Pollock, underscoring the popularity of the book even among women. A third volume in a plain cloth binding accompanies the set and contains an extract with t.p. of 419-438, representing the first complete Chapter 17 of the 4th edition which contains the account of Pirate Gow and was not added until the later 4th edition. This supplemental extract’s cloth binding contains an ORIGINAL PIRATE COIN: a 1-reale silver “cob.” Pillars and waves, cross on back. 18 mm, evidently from the Consolacion, a Spanish Armada del Sur (South Sea Armada) galleon Condition: Internally, some light general toning and foxing, some foxing to title pages, upper corner stain to t.p. of vol.1 and prelim leaves with some slight soiling, minor marginal stain affecting outer margin (mostly edge), Blackbeard slightly short. Generally, VERY GOOD and certainly one of the best obtainable copies. Copies were often read to death in the 18th century, and it is very hard to find acceptable copies of even the later edition, let alone the first. EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST EDITION OF BOTH VOLUMES. Philip Gosse in his 1926 “My Private Library” states If any copies of the first edition exist they must be very scarce. There is none in the British Museum Library, nor have I been able to trace a copy elsewhere. (The BL has since acquired a copy)

Now, back to rare book pricing:

1.    What would a dealer price this set at?    Well, given the rarity of the first edition , I would have asked a retail price of $7500.00

2.   What have other copies achieved at real world auctions?   A search of the ABPC database reveals  that Sotheby’s sold a comparable copy May 12, 2005, lot 109, £4,200 ($7,788). Since it is not possible to always duplicate what two bidders in a single auction would pay,  let’s more conservatively place the auction value at $6000 if another comparable copy was auctioned. A net price after commission and fees at auction, in that case,  would likely be $5000.

3.   What did our set realize on eBay?   Well, first, we did make a thorough, well researched description, highlighting why the book, and our copy in particular, was important.  After some last second bidding (as always), it sold for $4150.00.   After eBay fees and commission, the net proceeds were about $3800.  While it is hard to say why the eBay sale was a bit disappointing,  from my experience, the pool of serious buyers on eBay are limited for very rare antiquarian books and there is a natural skepticism of “why is this guy placing this on eBay and not going to Sotheby’s or Christies?”   This can make bidders a little hesitant.

4.  Finally,  there is the question of what the book would have realized on eBay if a dealer without  lengthy feedback or a serious following did not write a thorough and proper description. Well, that is impossible to say,  but again from my experience it is unlikely to have realized more than half of what it sold for if it had been listed by a non-professional seller without a long term reputation.  In that case, my best guess is that it would have realized approx. $2000

So,  what then is the best route to selling your rare books?  Generally, I encourage sellers to seek independent evaluation from a major auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s and compare them to evaluations/appraisals or purchase offers a dealer such as myself makes. While I always provide auction records when possible to make the process transparent, I do find another auction house evaluation often instills confidence that the valuations are accurate. Once a fair valuation is established, I find many sellers accept a dealer’s offer as they want immediate payment without the risks of the auction houses.   I usually don’t recommend (given the comparisons above) that sellers without specialized knowledge ‘eBay’ the books themselves.