Smart Rare Book Collecting

by Pete on April 12, 2012 · Rare Book Education

Smart rare book collecting - Rarebooksdigest

I was watching an episode of the TV show Pawn Stars the other day, where a man sold a book potentially owned by Sir Isaac Newton to a pawn star for $7000. The rare book published in Latin in 1546 is titled De Natura Fossilium (On the Nature of Fossils), and is by Georgius Agricola. The book could be worth a lot more than $7000 if it does indeed contain Sir Isaac Newton‘s handwriting. In short, the moral of the story is be careful of what special books you own, buy or sell.

Working at the comic book shop, I have had plenty of experiences where people have walked in with comic books in the hopes of selling them, with the belief that the signatures that were contained in their particular comic books were of someone famous in the industry. While that may have very well been the case, a lot of time it was not at all possible. Indeed, an expert’s opinion is definitely necessary when it comes to the high end valued items, and there are a few suggestions to abide by when evaluating a purchase.

Common Sense: Although as discussed on previous posts, some of the best deals can be found where least expected, they are also the most likely places for you to fall victim to misrepresentation. Do not take the merchant’s word for everything even if some stories seem entirely plausible. If someone in a thrift shop is trying to sell you a Salvatore Dali illustrated, Alice in Wonderland, for $200 while an original book is worth close to $10,000, for example, it is a time to exercise caution. Obviously most people may not know the true value of some rare book, but take everything with a pinch of salt. Stories about people who bought books or comic books that were supposedly rare, only to find out they weren’t are also plentiful, so if you are not sure about something and you have a limited budget, it’s better to take a deep breath and step back.

Research:  Always try to do your own research no matter how limited your knowledge of the topic may be. If you do get the opportunity to do some preparations prior to the actual transaction, take it. Look up your items before hand, have at least some common facts about what you are looking for, do your comparative shopping on-line where it is quick and extensive, and be prepared to negotiate. Sometimes using your smart phone is also a good idea for a quick research on the spot. Electronic scanners are the least useful for the task since they are using barcodes available to more recent publications and they are also inflexible.  Finally, common sense is much more effective when it is backed by knowledge. Are the 1000 or so books by Charles Dickens published after 1970 that are listed as first editions, a century after his death, true first editions?

Expert advice:  If you are not sure, and even when you are sure in high value transactions, consult with an expert. The additional verification and confirmation will give you the peace of mind at a fraction of the expense you are bound to incur if you get into a bad deal.  Usually items offered by auction houses are guaranteed to be as described; otherwise their reputation is on the line. I would not expect anything less given that I am paying a 20% or so buyer’s premium on top of the high bid.

Many of the most collectible rare books published before the twentieth century have already been discovered or destroyed.  Indeed, there has been a decline in the frequency of new discoveries such as the one aired in the Pawn Stars episode. Nonetheless, there are some collectible undiscovered gems still waiting to be uncovered that are still below their market’s potential.  If your luck brings them across your path, do not forget to bring the aforementioned advice with you.

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