by Ed Postal
Collecting early printed books, published before 1900, is a very rewarding and challenging area of book collecting. Unlike other areas of collecting, where if you have enough money you can find almost anything that you want, there are many early printed books that you can't find no matter how much money you have.
The value of older books is determined by many of the same criteria as modern books—condition, content, and edition. Many people think that just because a book is old, it is valuable, but a book has no collectible value by age alone unless it was printed in the 1500s or earlier. Most people understand that almost anything they collect loses the majority of its value when it has some damage, but when they describe an older book, they don't seem to understand just how much of the value is lost when the book is in poor condition. When looking at older books beware of these terms:
- "Good condition for its age"–Age is unimportant in terms of condition, as the same description of condition exists for a 400-year-old book as a 20-year-old book.
- "First edition"–All books that were ever published originally came out in a first edition, but the majority of these books have no value for collectors.
- "Rare"–Everyone thinks that the books that they have are rare and therefore valuable, which isn't always true. If only one copy of a book was ever printed, but no one wanted it, it would have no collectible value.
Reference books are of the utmost importance, especially in dealing with older books, to find out the relative scarcity of books, and to collate what you have to see if it is complete. Some good reference books are:
- U.S. Iana 1650-1950: A Selective Bibliography in Which Are Described 11,620 Uncommon & Significant Books Relating to the Continental Portion of the United States, compiled by Wright Howes.
- Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible, 1525-1961 by A.S. Herbert.
- Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641-1700. Compiled by Donald Wing.
- A Dictionary of Books Relating to America from Its Discovery to the Present Time by Joseph Sabin.
- Catalogue of Books Printed on the Continent of Europe, 1501-1600 in Cambridge Libraries, compiled by H.M. Adams.
Other than reference books, recommending specific early printed books is futile because there are so many different areas of interest. What one person would find fascinating, someone else would find utterly boring.
Even so, as a general statement most books printed in America before the Revolutionary War are considered to be valuable, such as A Collection of All the Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania printed by Benjamin Franklin. This folio volume has a value of around $5000. Also, early bibles printed before 1700 usually have a higher value because there are many collectors of early bibles such as the 2nd Edition of The Catholic New Testament printed in 1600, with a value of around $4500. An example of an older book without a high value is The Poetical Works Of John Cunningham printed in 1785, with a value of around $30.
Given the variables and limitations of collecting early printed books, the satisfaction of creating your own collection will make it worthwhile.
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