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Trash or Treasure

Important Facts about Old Books, Marilyn Wurzburger**


Not all books are worth collecting. From the beginning of publishing (about 1450 a.d.) to today the total number of books published is about equal to the national debt. From 1450-1500 alone there were about 40,000 different editions of the Bible published.

So what makes a book rare? Large demand and limited supply. Age alone is not the determining factor.

  • 1599 Latin Vulgate Bible sold for $175 in 1992
  • 1617 Greek Bible sold for 200 Pounds
  • An English Bible approximately 400 years old sold for $300 in 1998.

The Bible is the most preserved book and therefore has small value beyond the family history recorded in it.

In contrast a 1982 reprint edition of ALICE IN WONDERLAND sold for $1000 when first reprinted and a copy recently sold for over $5000. It has limited availability and is a beautiful book.

The 1st ed. of Fitzgerald's translation of THE RUBIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM was a sleeper when it was first published. Today it is eagerly sought by collectors and has high value.


Charles Dickens said “There are books of which the cover is the most valuable part.” This is still true today. In some cases a fine quality binding is more valuable that what is contained within.


A 1st edition is not always valuable and it is not always easy to tell what is a first edition. Many first editions are not printed with an edition statement. The best way to tell if the book in hand is a first edition is to check bibliographies of the author's works to verify. In some cases later editions will be more valuable than the 1st edition because of added illustrations, etc.


Scarcity is not necessarily a determining factor. Be wary of books with limitation notices printed inside (e.g. Limited edition of 1000). Limitation notices may or may not be true. The publisher may have printed more or less. If they sold well they might have gone back to press.

Limited editions should be numbered. Also, a limited edition of 1000 copies is not exactly “limited”.

Unknown authors are not of much value - unless they become famous later.

Books printed in large editions tend to survive less well. This is especially true of “useful” books which are used. Examples of useful books are: machinery maintenance manuals, pharmacopoeia, cookbooks, bookkeeping manuals. One example of a book that was widely distributed but now rare is the first Apple computer manual.


Signatures of non-famous people are not valuable.

Signatures of famous people must be verified. Verifying a signature is not easy. Check it against other known samples of their signature. Beware of “mechanical” signatures that may appear to be real. These facsimiles were very prominent in 19th Century books and can appear deceptively real.

The signature of the “owner” of the book may be more valuable than the book if the owner is a famous person. For example a book owned by Winston Churchill might be more valuable than the book it appears in. Scarcity of the signature is a determining factor in the value. Some famous people signed many items and thus decreased the value of their signature.

If you sign the book it will decrease its value.

Ownership marks are usually a detriment. In a few cases the ownership mark can add value by proving provenance. An example was a book that carried the ownership mark of the Alcatraz Prison Library. This might attract a higher price from an Alcatraz collector.


To be of value the book should be intact. It must have the dust jacket, plates, illustrations, etc. in excellent (new) condition in order to be declared “mint.” In general, a library binding devalues the book for collectors.

All volumes of a set should be present and of the same edition. A set that is made up of books from various editions is a “made up” set and is considered to be a working copy. Nice sets (not particularly valuable) may command a higher price from an interior decorator.

Books published by the Franklin Mint and similar look good and generally cost a lot. Don't expect them to appreciate much and they might go down in value.

Exceptions to the Completeness Rule - Folios or plate books that accompanied textbooks, atlas volumes and plant plates. All might have value as individual pieces of art that can be framed. Other examples are magazine covers by famous artists (Rockwell and company) and fashion plates.

Fine press books (homemade paper, handbound, etc.) might have value in the future. There isn't very much information available on this type of book yet. Collect because of the quality of the book and as examples of fine bookmaking.




  • Books illustrated with real photographs.
  • Early children's books (before 1900) that are in good condition
  • Pop-up books (even the most current) especially those that are complicated
  • Color plate books - especially those from the 1870s and 1880s
  • Pre-1908 National Geographics in good condition and unbound


  • and other out-of-print dealers*
  • BOOK PRICES CURRENT (current auction prices)
  • OCLC - if the book isn't found here, save it
  • Rare Book Dealers Catalogs

* Out-of-Print list of booksellers

**Based on notes taken at the program, “Books Worth Collection” presented by Marilyn Wurzburger (Head of Special Collections, Arizona State University) on December 6, 2001 at the AzLA-MPLA Conference held in Phoenix, AZ.

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