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Estate Liquidation & Downsizing: The 2020 Guide for Evaluating Books or Home Libraries

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How to Handle Book Collections or Home Libraries

Say you’ve walked into an estate liquidation situation, ready to evaluate and catalog the properties when you come upon a collection of old books – maybe even a full library.

With an entire house to deal with during the estate liquidation process, your areas of expertise may sometimes have to stretch beyond knowledge of typical household merchandise you regularly encounter.

By having a grasp on what to look for (and what not to look for), you can better equip yourself to assess the sales potential of an estate library, whether large or small.

These same tips apply to those downsizing their own homes or clearing out during a move!

Let’s get started with the bookshelves.

Evaluating the worth of a book collection or library isn’t as easy as doing a quick bit of research online at popular sites such as AbeBooks. In fact, if you’re looking in the wrong place, the information you find can be potentially misleading.

Let’s begin with a quick scan of the shelves or boxes of books.

Estate liquidation for books

Starting point: Scan the shelves

Are the shelves packed with used books?

Let’s be brutal. If you scan the bookshelves in a home and see the type of books that line the shelves at Goodwill or Salvation Army, that’s a general reading library packed with used books. These are the kinds of books we all have at home, but the ones that only have minimal value. (Think $1 – $2 if you’re lucky.)

Common used books that aren’t worth dealing with can include:

  • Gardening books
  • Health / beauty / fitness books
  • Travel books / guides
  • Children’s books from the last 15-20 years
  • Novels from the last 15-20 years

General paperbacks, especially mass produced novels and especially-especially modern romance novels and the like are actually so incredibly common that they’re considered the weeds of the library. In fact, these undesirable paperbacks are often destroyed and used as pulp for new books.

Solution: You might find an estate sale customer who’ll cherry pick the “best” novel from the bunch and drop a quarter in exchange, but it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to unload the whole collection. Remember the plan here is to LIQUIDATE the estate, so in this case it may be best to donate all the books of this type.

Set of Old Encyclopedias

What about encyclopedias or dictionaries?

Here’s a definition: Old encyclopedia sets or used dictionaries are instant donation material.

Remember when we used to shell out good money for a beautiful set of home encyclopedias? Sadly, those days are over. Wikipedia is updated by the minute, and the information in old 20th century encyclopedias is already outdated, rendering a set (mostly) useless.

An attractive set of encyclopedias can have (a little) potential value to someone as decor to fill empty bookshelves. Same goes for dictionaries or thesauruses, which are some of the most common items found in estate liquidations.

Worse, a good percentage of the time, volumes are missing from these old sets, which further detracts from any possible value.

Solution: Donate the encyclopedias or dictionaries, or attempt to sell the set as a decorative shelf-filler.

What about text books?

Like encyclopedias, school text books can fall out of favor when even slightly outdated. College, university and vocational text books are often sold in text book buy-back programs, and there are actually many websites that do this specifically.

Here are a few you can try:

Solution: Try to sell back the book, if possible. Unless the text book is something extremely specific or unusually technical, it’s probably best to be donated.

How to spot collectible books

What’s a collectible book? Depends on what someone collects. But, some popular topics that have some moderate desirability (think $10 – $50) are books that are a little out of the ordinary and uncommon.

A few topics to look out for can sometimes include:

  • Certain out-of-print (OOP) biographies / autobiographies
  • Books on very niche subjects
  • First editions of modern novels or popular books (with dust jackets)
  • Collections of a similar topic purposely placed together

Time-Life sets, many coffee table books and sets published expressly as ‘collector’s sets’ are often the ones that are least valuable.

Solution: Spend a little time thinking outside the box during the estate liquidation and do a visual scan for titles that jump out at you.

How to identify antique books

How to identify an antique book

You should easily be able to identify older looking books during a quick scan of the shelves. While many antique books are prized by book collectors, many more are still just (older) used books with an according value.

What’s ‘antique’ in terms of a book? Typically, objects are categorized as ‘antiques’ if they are aged 100 years or older. At the time of this writing, that means something antique could be dated from 1920 or earlier. However, in the rare book trade, an book is (generally) considered antique if it is dated to the late 19th century or earlier.

We regularly see dozens of books dating to the early 20th century (1900 – 1920 or so) that are extremely common and cover a variety of pretty mundane subjects.

Lots of people are surprised to learn that these really don’t have desirability among collectors. A few things to keep in mind when handling an estate liquidation:

  • Many old books, even antique books, are not valuable or rare
  • Books that have attractive spines can be desirable as decor
  • Groups of similarly colored books look great on shelves

Solution: If you’re unsure whether an antique book is of any value or is just a common title, ask an expert just to be sure.

How to evaluate an antique book or rare book

If you feel you’ve found a gem in the collection, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

When an antique book or rare book is evaluated, here are three criteria used to judge its value:

#1 Condition, condition, condition!

Many may be surprised to know that above almost any other aspect, the condition of a book is everything – there is very seldom an exception to this rule.

Rare or antique books command better prices when they are nicely bound (meaning no loose covers or pages), clean, and unmarked by damage such as tears, worm holes or staining.

With early to mid-20th century books and first editions, original dust jackets (in good condition with no rips or tears) often add another layer of value.

The only time condition is not so reflective of price is when a book is exceptionally rare or exceptionally old. (Wondering how old is “old”? Read this.)

#2 Rarity

So, what’s ‘exceptionally rare’?

Spotting a rare book without some previous experience is extremely difficult. We all naturally tend to think that if a book is very old, it probably is also very rare – that isn’t the case either. Crazy as it may seem, it is possible to stumble upon a book from the 1980’s that could be rarer than an antique book from the 1800’s. “Scarcity” may be a good term to use here, coupled with high market demand. Mix the two, and you’ll have a rare book.

#3 Age doesn’t always equal value

When people come across an old book during an estate liquidation they tend to think: “This is really old! It’s got to be worth some good money!”

Dealers and collectors have always followed the general rule of thumb that an antique is a piece that is at least 100 years old. Understandably, you’d think this would also apply to antique books.

However, in a great many cases, this rule is untrue. Age has little to do with value unless the book is considerably old, and in the world of antique books, old means OLD. When we use the term “old”, we’re usually referring to a book that is hundreds of years old. Yes, hundreds.

In Conclusion

As with any area of antiquities, antique books can best be evaluated by someone who has experience and understands how the rare book market works.

If these kinds of evaluations are a bit beyond your area of expertise, you’re welcome to get in touch with us for a free evaluation. We’re always happy to provide information on books that cross your path during an estate liquidation, move or downsizing situation.

How we evaluate rare books

Our research typically involves a study of archived auction sales / prices coupled with an understanding of a book’s individual rarity in today’s rare book market. Only then do we get a realistic valuation.

We’re based in Phoenix, Arizona but our business is completely virtual which allows us to work with customers all over the globe – sometimes even taking advantage of today’s technology to get a peek at various books or collections through Zoom, FaceTime or Skype.


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