Collecting Rare Books: From Wealth to Weirdness

Written by: Louis Gereaux

Collectors in other fields usually search out hard-to-find items: rareness is valued in and of itself. Rare books are no exception.  However, the word rare does not have the same connotation in book collecting that it does in coin or stamp collecting.  Rare books are not valued because of their rarity alone. A rare book is valued for its content as well as having only a few copies available which must be appreciated by the collector.

James Lenox was an early North American book collector.  He began collecting in the early 1800’s.  At that time there were few rare books available in North America.  He was mostly interested in early, fine printed volumes and manuscripts.  These he attained from Europe when libraries sold off their collections.  He commissioned a spacious building in New York City to house his collection of books which eventually became the New York Public Library, now considered the largest public library in the United States.  There were other larger book collections of more everyday books from the Astor and Tilton families, and Andrew Carnegie, famous for his library contributions, gave a cash donation of millions of dollars to fund the NYC public library, but Lenox provided the rarer books.

Another famous U.S. book collector, Harry Folger, put together a fine collection of Shakespeare’s works.  In this case, it was Shakespeare’s fame as a playwright which lent value to the collection. The fame of the author often adds value to the rare edition of a book. Mr. Folger did not know that these books would be valuable, especially since he was collecting a British author in America.  Well, the result was the Folger Shakespeare Library which opened in Washington, D.C. in 1932. This library is also significant because it holds many rare books from the years 1450 A.D. to the mid-1700’s.

An American book collector with great re-known was Henry Edwards Huntington, who was a West Coast railroad baron.  He collected Americana, English Poetry and Drama, early manuscripts, and voyages and travels.  He was also an art collector and his library, and museum with botanical gardens, called simply The Huntington, is located in San Marino, California. He is often considered the grand daddy of North American book collectors.

Something you might encounter when trying to collect books are the weirder titles out there. Books today labeled erotica were once called curiosa. Curiosa and so called weird books have the qualification that they are little known works, thus making them possibly collectible. If you collect weird books in your shop, you may add that much more uniqueness which attracts customers.  Instead of focusing so much on everyday titles, why not add some hard to find books which you can price a bit higher? Weird books are not necessarily famous rare books but are valued more for their obscurity.

As booksellers, there is one difference between us and the rich and famous collectors of days gone by which is that we sell and profit upon our collections rather than donating them to public usage.  It behooves the bookseller to be on the lookout for rare books and gems.  After all, the antiquarian bookseller and dealer of rare books is essentially the crème de la crème of the bookselling industry.  If you want to sell your inventory for fantastically high prices, and have those books be worth the higher prices, you should consider adding rare books to your lineup.  As stated in the beginning, the book must not only be rare, but collectible such as being a first edition… etc.  Not every edition of the same book is collectible. We may find these books in the out of the way places that we get our inventories including, of course, library book sales.

If you count book collectors among your customers then consider this: collectors of rare books may want to read the books that they collect.  However, no collector would ever read the collectible copy of the rare book.  This provides good reasoning to sell copies of collectible books which are in used condition as a reading copy. When you begin thinking of your books as possibly collectible, it will make you examine your inventory more carefully and price the rarer books closer to their true value, rather than gifting them away.

The famous banker, J. Pierpont Morgan, was also a leading book collector along with art and antiquities.  His museum has a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.  This book may have had 300 copies printed and less than fifty exist today. The museum has images of that Bible here – Gutenberg Bible images.  While an extremely rare book may only have one copy, this Bible is valuable because it was the first book printed with modern typography way back in the 1400’s.  Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible have sold for a couple of million dollars.  Johann Gutenberg, the namesake of this Bible, was the inventor of the printing press.


The Official Price Guide to Old Books & Autographs, House of Collectibles, @1988

4 thoughts on “Collecting Rare Books: From Wealth to Weirdness”

  1. That picture of the printing press has me wondering, how fast did the ink dry once the book was stamped with the press? Does anyone know? How long did it take to print a book before automation came along?

    • Hi Louis – The ink would demand air to dry. Air in the paper helped the drying process. Preventing offsetting, (that is, ink transferring from the printed page to the back of the next piece of paper) care had to be taken. Printed pages stacked too high could weigh down the bottom pages and cause offsetting so racks were sometimes used so the pages would thereby have plenty of air to facilitate drying. If space demanded that the paper be piled up without racks slip sheets (blank paper) could be inserted so any transferring of ink would not be on a good page.

      The pages would be left to dry overnight otherwise the ink might smear if it was printed on the backside too soon. Also care had to be taken that the ink from the printed page from yesterday, (now facing up and away from the type) did not get on the platen and transfer to the next page to be printed.

      As far as the time to print a book there are many variables. Number of pages, how many copies and the type on hand were issues that would come into play. Using handset type each letter would be placed in the form one at a time. After composing the page (or pages) proofs would be pulled, corrections made, more proofs, (until ‘perfect’) and only then would the pages be printed.

      Typesetters never proofed their own work because if they misread something once they might misread it again.

      For smaller printing shops with a smaller collection of handset type a form might have to be torn down and the type redistributed for the next page to be composed. This is where the line “watching your P’s and Q’s” came in. Both Lower case P’s and Q’s along with D’s and B’s are mirror images and could easily be mistaken for one another and redistributed wrong. This of course would cause an error the next time that letter would be used. – Job security for the proof reader.

      The Linotype machine – – first installed at the New York Tribune in 1886, made a big difference in the time it took to manufacture a book. Previously it was very labor intensive.

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