A Guide to Bringing your Books/Ephemera to Auction

03/08/2016     Chiswick Curates, Books

The following is intended as a guide to those who are novices in the field of rare and antiquarian books, but feel they might have something of interest.

When understanding the value of a book there are many factors involved. First of all, is the book common or rare? Second - and perhaps more importantly - is it desirable? The terms 'rare' and 'desirable' are not necessarily interchangeable.

Here is an indication of what books are usually saleable at auction:

1.Antiquarian - the majority of books printed in the 20th-century and 19th-century are not of sufficient value for sale at auction. A case in point would be 19th-century, and even many 18th-century, bibles, which are very common. They would have to have something very special about them to be saleable. There are, of course, major exceptions: some of the most valuable books created were created in the 19th-century, but these tend to be the very grand natural history and travel books of the period, or books marking some major step-forward in human thought, Darwin's 'Origin of Species' being perhaps the most salient example. The first edition of  1859 is exceptionally scarce and valuable; very early editions have some value, but much less; and mass-produced copies from a later date are almost worthless, unless they belonged to someone of note. Darwin was a prolific author, and first editions of some of his other works are sought-after, but they are in a different league from 'Origin of the Species'.

2.Anything leather bound before 1850 as a starting point: but

  • NOT Standard 'works', poetry (unless of an unheard of author or obscure author from the early 19th century and before). Histories (unless 17th century or older).
  • NOT Odd volumes - these are seen as incomplete parts of a larger set and therefore render the title practically valueless.
  • NOT A title lacking plates, tables, maps or lacking anything that should be present such as title pages - complete is best

3.Interesting and quirky engravings - the type that might have been sold on a street corner in 1749 for a shilling! For example early 19th century hand coloured satirical engravings by Cruikshank or Gilray.

4.Bindings - in good condition. Books in leather with spines in gilt and morocco labels, usually red or green on the spines.

5.Charming children's books - with nice hand coloured plates, usually before 1850, although more modern writers can be highly collectable, perhaps most notably Beatrix Potter (in first edition or inscribed by the author).

6.Maps - Early 19th century and older if of the Americas and Asia; if of European subjects, then very few maps later than 1700 are valuable, although, as always with books, there are major exceptions!

7.Manuscripts (letters) - relating to notable persons or a collection of manuscripts relating to a an interesting subject - i.e. an archive.

8.Ephemera - Printed advertisements, broadsides (poems, ballads etc.) - Preferably before 1860.

9.Autographs - signed photos, postcards, album pages, signed pieces of ephemera relating to notable persons.

10.An interesting provenance – in the form of a bookplate, a previous owner’s inscription or an annotated book (annotated by the previous owner). If the person to whom the book belonged has an entry on the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) or Wikipedia then this is a good starting point.

11.Scrap albums – including engravings, water colours, ephemera, generally prior to about 1880.

12.Signed limited edition books.

The following books are, generally, not suitable for auction:

  1. Modern fiction unless FIRST EDITIONS of earlier works by collectible authors or signed by collectible authors. However, having a book signed by the author is only important if the author hasn't signed millions of copies on a book signing tour. Some say that an unsigned copy of a Margaret Thatcher book is worth more than a signed one!
  2. Encyclopedias - definitely not Cassell's or anything remotely mid 19th century to present day in the form of gazetteers or encyclopedias. HOWEVER If there is something special about the binding then the encyclopedic set could be sold as a binding or of the books have a good provenance.
  3. Book club reprints- these have no value unless signed - this is of course dependent on the collectability of the author.
  4. Folio society - no auction value. (only if signed by a notable figure)
  5. Collectible rare fiction without a dust jacket- 80% of the value is in the dust jacket. If it's without a dust jacket but the book is signed by someone important or by the author then that's a good start.
  6. Reference books - art reference, even if £50 was paid 20 years ago, art reference unless signed is literally worth just a few pounds. 20th century reference books on any subject, even if they're out of print and on the net for £1000 they are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them and to a very narrow audience. - Perhaps better on eBay. A ubiquitous title: Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples - retail prices look good online but there is no demand at auction unless the books are signed by Churchill or someone notable
  7. Late 19th/20th century mass produced hardback reference books on ubiquitous subjects- histories biogs etc. are worth roughly a pound each.
  8. Modern paper backs on any subject unless signed. Even penguins, puffins are difficult to sell at auction and would probably do better in a vintage shop.
  9. Late 19th century/20th century atlases or maps- not hand coloured. Early 19th century and earlier  hand coloured maps are good as a starting point, but even John Speed maps (17th century) have radically gone down in value.
  10. Children's annuals - 20th century, children's books - late 19th century/20th century. If its a charming hand coloured children's book in original wrappers c. 1840 or earlier then this is a good starting point.
  11. Cigarette cards - no auction value (only if autographed by a notable figure)
  12. Odd volumes- with a volume missing, a set is more difficult to sell depending on what it is.
  13. Victorian family Bibles- two a penny as every family had one. Bibles before 1700 AD are a good starting point. 16th or 17th century bibles- lovely!
  14. Newspapers - especially first or early numbers of 20th century journals - UNLESS the journal represents and interesting field. For example we recently sold a collection of early 20th century surrealist journals - an interesting and saleable subject. Newspapers that are 200 years old and of 'forgotten' publications and perhaps with a quirky sounding title are of interest. I.e. we sold a copy of a journal entitled "The Bristol Job Nott" c. early 19th century.
  15. Indentures or land deeds, UNLESS relating to a notable person, place or is/are highly decorative.

With all the above, the exceptions are if the book has a good previous auction record, is NOT in COPAC (and antiquarian) * (COPAC- the repository of library records, which lists all known copies of a particular work), has good provenance or is signed by the author or notable persons or is in a fine binding.



Understanding value and Previous Expectations.

Although the Internet is good to look up a price for your book, these prices are only indications of your book's value if it has SOLD at that price. Auction is different and a representative litmus test as to what the demand, be it dealer or collector is and what they are willing to pay. Markets are always changing. Our advice is based on demand for the particular book, completeness/condition and rarity. For example if a rare book is in a library binding this will affect the value because it is not in contemporary calf or cloth, and will by default be not worth as much. When it comes to value- The old adage about putting too high an estimate on something does literally kill off any interest from potential buyers.  When a book has been re-entered at a much lower estimate it sometimes reaches that which was hoped for in the first place. Auctions are swings and roundabouts but you always have to as a valuer give the book the best possible chance of selling.

We are happy to offer our free valuation service ranging from single items to complete libraries/ collections whether from dealers in the trade or private individuals. We are also able for home visits or if you would like to bring items in. It is best to call in advance or email to discuss your items ahead of your visit.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email simon@chiswickauctions.co.uk or nicholas@chiswickauctions.co.uk or call the main Chiswick Auctions line on 0208 992 4442 and ask for the Book Department.