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What makes a rare book?

What makes a rare book?

A question that is often asked. Why do some books sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, while others are valued for pennies? Does that box in the attic contain collectable books that are worth anything? Firstly, from a book collectors point of view a rare book has to be one that they want badly. If it is generally regarded as desirable and even better, hard to find, then you’re well on the way to having a valuable book, but is it a rare book?  Different booksellers use different criteria and the terms “rare”, “antique” and “old” are not clearly defined. Here are a few factors to consider when looking at a special book and it’s value and rarity.

Just because it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s rare! 

In general books printed in the hand press era (from the 1450’s invention of the printing press to until the mechanism of printing in the early 19th Century) are recognised as rare. Yet many books printed in the 19th century can be classed as rare due to the poorer quality of paper and so may be more fragile than older books. Eighteenth century editions of the Bible survive in such numbers that few are considered valuable or rare.

Is the old book important in some way?

Authors that made a significant contribution to science, history or influencing society in some way are the kind of books that are collectable and therefore often valuable. A first edition book by Charles Darwin, for instance, will fetch thousands of pounds. Also any special bindings, an early use of a new printing process, or an autograph, inscription, or marginal notes from a famous person can contribute to a book’s importance and its value. For example, H. G. Wells is  remembered for his science fiction novels, and is recognised as the father of science fiction being nominated for The Nobel Prize for Literature for four years. His works of “The Time Machine” (1895) and “The War of the Worlds” (1898) would clearly be of far greater value than a more recent science fiction novelist.

How about the condition of the book?

Condition is often everything! A damaged or incomplete book will significantly affect the value and desirability of a book. Badly repaired books will also negatively influence the price of a book. The condition of any dust jacket is also a factor to consider. There is a wider spread view in the trade that dust jackets that have been repaired, even if professionally to a high standard, are not a sought after as those left in their original state. A multi-volume set of books which are all in pristine condition can have considerable value if the set is complete. First edition children’s books are often more rare to find in a good condition because they aren’t the best library archivists! Coloured in and torn pages plus discarded dust jackets are common. This is why, for example, good quality first edition of many Dr Seuss books frequently sell for considerable sums.

What about the history of the book?

The story of where a book came from and who might have owned the book is called provenance in the trade. Having an interesting provenance can add considerable value to a book and it’s rarity. Without any doubt the most highly valued form of provenance is that which shows an association copy or a link between an important owner of a book and its author. This is often with an inscription or a presentation. An inscribed copy usually carries the author’s signature along with the recipient’s name, while a presentation copy is given by the author to the recipient. A personal inscription by the author to a significant person would make the book more appealing to a collector.  For example,  Lewis Carroll’s  “Alice In Wonderland” that was personally signed and dedicated to none other than Alice Liddell, the real-life child on whom Carroll’s fictional Alice was based, fetched £15,400 at auction back in 1928. One can only guess it’s value now! Signed or limited editions of a book can add considerable value to a book.

And how many rare books are out there?

A book can be rare because there were very few copies printed or it was printed for private circulation only. First editions tend to be considered “rare” as publishers might cautiously publish only the number of books they think will sell. This is especially true for first time authors where the demands of the public are not certain. These first editions, especially if printed in small numbers, are particularly prized by book collectors.  For Ian Fleming’s first Bond book Casino Royale, only 3000 of the first edition, first impression, first state (without the Sunday Times mention) were printed. Many went straight into the library system so their jackets were discarded, making complete copies very rare, highly sought after and very valuable. Even in recent times, the first hardback edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers’ Stone’, was a run of only 500 copies printed. A copy sold at Southerby’s in 2015 for £25,000.

Does anyone want it?

This is the million dollar question! The desirability of a book is crucial and is anyone prepared to pay good money for it? Owning an first edition book in pristine condition of an unknown author might not be a book of great value to others – even if it is to you! Collecting books is a often done for very personal reasons. These can be quite varied such as collecting your childhood favourite author, or extending a special interest hobby or even to fill a shelf to show off!

Ultimately, though, the value of a book as a collectable item, is directly related to the book’s relative scarcity and its condition. It is basic supply and demand. When many collectors seek the same book and only a few copies are available, that book value increases. Yet what makes a rare book is a fine mix of numbers, importance, condition and provenance to make it truly rare and valuable.

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