Book Restoration: Good or Bad?

by Admin on May 30, 2014 · Book Care and Conservation, The Book Trade

Great Gatsby jacket restoration

Sotheby’s sold Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, at an auction last month for $377,000 including buyer premium. The lot was traded at the high end of the estimated value, signifying the fact that rare book investors and collectors will pay premium prices to acquire top quality books.  This particular copy is not just a first edition, first issue with its original scarce dust jacket, but additionally, it had not undergone any restoration of any kind. Untouched copies without significant chipping and loss to the edition that was published with a slightly taller size jacket are a rare species indeed!

It is quite common for high spots of modern first editions, as well as older binding collectibles to have some type of restoration work done.  From the minimal repair of a torn leaf or removal of a simple stain, to the complete rehabilitation and refinishing of the dust jacket and binding, the spectrum of restoration work applied varies significantly.  Professional practices include de-acidification, alkaline buffering, resizing, washing, re-sewing, filling in missing parts, replacement of papers and boards, and sometimes complete replacement of the original covers and wrappers.

As the Sotheby’s auction of The Great Gatsby proved last month, any type of restoration can have a negative effect on value, especially when a poor job or even an average one is performed.  In most cases however, where a high spot is in bad shape, restoration actually has a positive effect on its value, unless the book is in fact considered to be an artifact. In such case, preservation rather than restoration is more appropriate.

Deciding whether to restore a particular volume is a relatively straight forward undertaking. A good rule of thumb is to check the extent to which the following criteria are satisfied:

  1. The book is considered to be a collectible high spot.
  2. The book is showing significant loss to its cover and or content.
  3. The workmanship of the restorer is guaranteed to be above average.
  4. The cost of restoration is significantly less than any appreciation in value due to restoration.

For the buyer looking to purchase a volume that had some restoration done, however, the task of assessing the effect of the restoration may not be as straight forward. Beginning with the fact that no two books are ever alike, the task is further complicated by assessing the identification and quality of the restoration to damaged areas of the book. In a way, it includes an assessment based on measuring the precise accuracy of the restored parts to the original publication condition; a task that is impossible without the luxury of having access to the original, in order to compare and contrast.

Complete replacement of a binding or a dust jacket is, for the most part, easier to evaluate and sometimes difficult to detect. A skilled bookbinder can often create a binding that will pass for the original.  Replica bindings utilizing period material and archival inks can be made to look close to the original. Moreover, high quality facsimile dust jackets appear to be original even to the trained eye, and are not easily revealed unless exposed under magnification. Particularly, with older jackets printed with offset lithography and not so much with those published in recent years, facsimiles using ink jet printing can easily be identified with the help of a pocket microscope. Needless to say, any valuable offered for sale should be accompanied by a record of treatment disclosing details on restoration work at all times.

More importantly, restoration is crucial to preservation and posterity. Much fewer rare books would exist today if not for restoration applied at some point during their long life spans. If the work performed happens to also be of high quality, and has clearly enhanced the work in complementing and preserving the style and condition of the original volume, then it’s a win-win situation. Value appreciation in such cases comes unnaturally, one may ponder to argue.


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane Humphries July 14, 2021 at 9:20 pm

I have a copy of Aesop’s Fables published by Sands and Co Edimburgh probably early 20th century or earlier of my mother’s in very poor condition needs new jacket and so forth can you recommend a good restorer. I cannot find any record of the book anywhere on the internet. Thanks


macey October 24, 2019 at 12:50 am

I have 2 Charles Dickens works 1st edition 1872, 1875 and some other books including a few Guizot’s “Popular History of England its hard to tell when they were printed. My father in law had them recovered around 15 years ago. The inside of all of these books are in really good condition. And they seem to match each other on the inside. Did he take the value away by recovering them?


David Whitfield May 15, 2019 at 3:50 am

Hello Sir, I have h just aquired a History of Vandalia 1776 by Thomas Nugent vol.1 While I know it’s not worth a fortune, I’m proud to include it in my collection. My question is the boards are fairly tight, but the original leather covering is completely gone. Would it be worth restoring it, and would it destroy what value it has? Thank you.


Anwar February 23, 2019 at 11:03 am

Hi. I needed some advice and direction please. We have a 900 year old book thats written on egyptian papyrus. We need it restored and preserved. Who do you recomend ?
Thanking you in advance


Virginia Fernald April 25, 2018 at 3:15 pm

I have a 1887 leather 13 x 10 table family bible with front cover off, back one partially attached and leather frayed, dried and pages attached. Who do you recommend for the restoration?


L D Crinklaw December 29, 2018 at 6:54 pm

I have an 1857 (signed 1862 by its owner) leather 13 x 10 table family bible with front cover off, back cover missing and the spine with its leather frayed, dried and the pages still attached to it. What did you decide to do? I do not wish to replace the spine even if it is frayed and missing some leather.


jeff December 20, 2017 at 10:10 pm

I purchased a rare 1st edition from 1678 and the boards are not connected and the first 2 pages are also disconnected. Everything is there though and original. Should I have to boards professionally repaired or just care for it in a display box and leave it as is? Thanks in advance.


Bradley G. Barnett August 24, 2015 at 5:04 pm


Any recommenations on resoration/preservation of a Woolf dust jacket?


Brad Graham


Patricia Selinger June 2, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Hi, Mr. Prigan. I’ll venture a reply to your questions here. To remove the library sticker and stamps would be called a restoration, but it would destroy the provenance of the book you have, and therefore, some of its value. Restoration = returning a book as nearly as possible to its original condition. Preservation = the deliberate and planned management of the resources of a library to care for its resources (example: reducing light levels to prevent fading in a museum is a preservation action). Repair = actions that make a book useable or prevent further damage but may or may not be original to the item. When in doubt what to do with a book: do nothing or put it in a box. A clamshell box will protect it from external environmental factors for a small investment ($50-$100).


Jean Marc CHABIRAND June 2, 2014 at 7:57 pm

There is restoration and preservation. But also depends on the item. For some books, it is better to preserve (protection box for example) rather than damaging it while trying to restore
It’s just my point of view with my small experience


MOSHE PRIGAN June 4, 2014 at 6:51 am

Thanks for the reply. I got the point.


MOSHE PRIGAN May 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I have a very rare book (according to many Italian booksellers who even don’t have it), the printed thesis of author and PhD. Umberto Eco, one of only 300 copies that were printed by the University of Turin press in 1956. It has a library sticker on its spine and few library stamps in it. To remove them would be called repair? restoration? preservation? What is it? I’m really confused from all these terms.
My other question is: just leave it as it is or to give it some better look (repair/restore/preserve)?
Thank you.


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