It’s (almost) all about condition.
As with all items in the world of antiques, the condition of an old or antique book greatly determines how valuable it is.
When antiquarian book collectors choose new pieces for their libraries, condition plays a huge role. The desirability of a rare book greatly depreciates if it is in poor condition.
Generally speaking, the better the condition, the more money the book is going to be worth.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes.
In some cases, an otherwise very desirable rare book may be in poor condition, but because of an unusual circumstance a collector might still be willing to pay a premium for the book because of its rarity. For instance, if there are just a few copies in existence worldwide, a collector might just accept a lesser copy due to the fact that there aren’t many other options.
Quick 10-point condition inspection
While it’s best to have a rare book dealer help to ascertain the proper condition grading of an antique book or first edition, there are certain guidelines that anyone can follow to get an idea of a book’s condition.
Here’s a quick checklist to help you roughly evaluate the condition of an antique book.
The key points to examine are:
- Is the binding tight and firm?
- Is the binding tattered, stained, or ripped in any way?
- Are any pages coming away from the spine?
- Are any pages torn or stained?
- Is there any water damage (rippling)?
- Do any of the pages exhibit foxing?
- Is the book complete, or is it missing any pages?
- If the book is illustrated, are the illustrations present?
- If the book was originally issued with a dust jacket, does it still have the dust jacket?
- Does the book have any kind of odor (smoke, mold, or mildew)?
A word on dust jackets
Dust jackets, often abbreviated “DJ” on bookselling websites and at auction, are also sometimes referred to as the dustjacket, dust cover, or wrapper.
Originally designed to literally keep dust off the covers of books, especially cloth-bound books with little grooves and crevices, very old dust jackets were usually plain white or brown paper.
Following WWI, publishers in the 1920’s got the bright idea to add the author’s name and title of the book to the dust jacket, and the ball really got rolling when colorful artwork was incorporated.
Certain dust jackets have become, in some ways, even more valuable than the books they protect.
This eye-catching artwork meant that readers would no longer have to open a book to quickly identify what it was. Dust jackets allowed for great marketability which helped to boost book sales and made advertising and promotion of new titles much easier.
Printing artwork on the cover of a book can be a huge job, but printing onto paper wrapping made the production of dust jackets a simple task.
The condition of a dust jacket
If a book was originally issued with a dust jacket, it’s just as important to inspect the dust jacket for condition.
Dust jackets are obviously thin paper and are much more fragile than books, so the better condition the jacket is in, the higher the value.
To the most serious book collectors, it’s necessary to have a dust jacket in (nearly) perfect condition, AND, that the dust jacket be original to the book.
What does that mean? Sometimes, heavily damaged original dust jackets are innocently (or not-so-innocently) swapped out with a replacement dust jacket of a similar age to make an attractive presentation. However, it’s usually easy for a serious collector to tell that this swap has been made, as the replacement dust jacket will have areas of wear or condition issues that differ from the book underneath.
Also – beware of facsimile or reproduction dust jackets, which are often produced to cover extremely popular First Editions.
The stigma of ex-library books
Often, when a public library no longer has a use for a book, they’ll discard it. In doing so, the library will often stamp the book in one or more places to indicate that it is a discard.
Such ex-library books are often sold at local book sales and are wonderful for the casual reader or to stock an ordinary home reference library.
But with the ex-library stamp comes a stigma – in the vast majority of cases, an ex-library book is branded a loser in terms of its monetary value.
The library’s stamp alone, not to mention the rough wear from thousands of library patrons, and the old paper pocket for the book’s check out card, severely affect the book’s condition.
Remember – The best condition book is one that is currently in a state that most closely resembles that of its original issuing state.
Ex-Libris – This term is NOT the same as ex-library. Ex-libris is Latin for “From the library of”, and indicates that this particular book was once part of an individual’s private library. Often such books will carry a fancy bookplate with the name of the original owner.
Book condition grading
There are general standards used in the antiquarian book trade which help to differentiate levels of condition among antique books. Properly grading a book’s condition is no simple task and is best left to an expert or rare book dealer if the book is one of great value or importance.
We’ve seen lots of people selling antique books online use the term “mint” to describe the book’s condition. “Mint” is a term used for grading the condition of coins, not books, yet many people have adopted the use of the word for describing the condition of anything they’re selling.
The commonly used terms used in the book trade to describe condition are as follows:
- As New (A.N.) – An unused, unread, clean and perfect copy of the book.
- Fine (F) – Much like As New in condition, except that the book has been opened or (carefully) read.
- Very Good (VG) – Shows signs of use, but is still a very nice copy.
- Good (G) – A good condition book should have all pages present and a fully intact cover. It can show significant wear, including wear to the dust jacket, boards or textblock.
- Fair – Noticeable wear, with the potential for non-essential pages to be missing or damaged. All other pages and illustrations should be present.
- Poor – Significant wear, damage or flaws. The book’s full text is still readable.
- Reading Copy – Used for reading only; the condition here is so poor that it is not desirable or collectable at all.
Restoration of antique books
In some cases, it may be advisable to consider having an antique book restored.
It’s important to work with a professional restorer (Leonard’s Book Restoration, for example) who is cautious not to perform any restorative work that would detract from the value of the book.
If the original binding of the book is destroyed, affecting its overall value, a professional book restorer can rebind the book, preferably using materials contemporary to the book’s publication.
Simpler forms of professional restoration could include:
- Cleaning pages
- Making small repairs to torn pages
- Reconditioning old leather
- Reattaching loose boards (the book’s covers)
Whew, that was a lot of information to take in! Going forward, just keep in mind that all antique books should be handled and stored with care in order to preserve their current condition and to prevent new potential damage.
To learn even more about grading antique books, you’ll find ABAA’s (The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America) glossary of book terms especially helpful.