When you’re picking up art books from a table at a garage sale, it’s hard to tell if what you’re looking at is trash or treasure. Could that vintage book of Picasso paintings be worth something, for example, or do the tears on the dust cover and the stains on the middle pages mean instead that it’s worth leaving behind? Whether you’re leafing through finds at a flea market or digging out boxes from your parents’ attic, how are you supposed to know if an art book is something worth keeping? Here’s a look.
What Makes an Art Book Rare?
Before we talk about rare art books, it’s important to understand what makes art books rare. According to the Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the rarity of a book is less determined by age and more by economics. In other words, an art book is rare when the demand for it exceeds its supply. If there were only 200 copies of a book printed but 500 people who wanted it, the book would be considered rare. “Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas for determining rarity,” RBMS adds. What’s worth remembering is that just because an art book is old doesn’t mean it’s rare.
What Is Meant by a Book’s Condition?
A book’s condition is its physical appearance and quality — how many of its pages are still intact, how much damage has been sustained by the cover or contents, what is missing, etc. At its best, a rare art book is as good as new: missing no pages, carrying no defects, looking pristine and freshly printed. At its worst, a rare art book is damaged — very worn and perhaps missing some content, but still readable. Various conditions exist between “like new” and “poor,” depending on how well the book has been maintained.
What Factors Should Be Evaluated?
When you’re holding a rare art book in your hands, trying to determine its condition, what exactly should you be considering? Here are a few key factors to evaluate:
- Binding: “At the top of the tier is binding,” says book expert Erik Bosee of Aldredge Bookstore in Dallas, Texas. Binding is what holds the book together and keeps the spine and pages intact. “If they look about as tight and bright and clean and unblemished as one would expect they would have looked at the day they were printed,” it’s a good sign, Bosse says.
- Defects: Examine the book for stains, tears and rips. Some defects are small enough to repair, and some are drastic enough to make the content hard or impossible to view. The more damage a book has sustained, the worse its condition.
- Completeness: Ideally, an art book will still have all of its pages, as well as its binding and cover intact. How complete a book is affects its condition.
While evaluating condition and using various online book resources to compare prices for a book can give you a rough idea of its value, the best way to know what a particular rare art book is worth is to consult a specialist and have him/her evaluate the copy. Even it it’s in poor condition and/or worth little financial reward, art books, like all books, also hold personal value based on what they mean to you.