Book Hunting Tips From a Seasoned Collector

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By: Nick Ducoff

As an aspiring antiquarian and science and technology book collector in Boston, I was excited about the Boston Book and Ephemera Fair sponsored by the Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers Association this past Sunday in Lexington, MA.

In addition to the 50+ dealers, the fair also offered the opportunity to bring up to two antique books for appraisal by Ken Gloss, proprietor of my favorite Boston book emporium, Brattle Book Shop, and a frequent evaluator on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.

I brought two recent acquisitions, a rare, first review of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 seminal “A Dictionary of the English Language,” as it appeared in Volume XII of The Monthly Review, and what I believed to be the first printing of the Works of Virgil as famously translated by John Dryden (this copy undated and printed for John Boyle).

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The only copy for sale online I could find of Volume XII of The Monthly Review offered the book for €1,823, or approximately $2,000; and I could not find any copies of the Dryden translation except for one archived in the National Library of Scotland. First editions of the Dryden translation are offered for $4,000 and more.

This is one of the many challenges of a collector – finding comparables. Invaluable is often a helpful aid as they aggregate so much inventory across sellers. While no sellers on Invaluable are currently selling a copy of The Monthly Review, there are two lots of early 19th century reprintings of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, an early one from 1805 and a later one from 1832. The only Dryden translation of Virgil for sale, is an upcoming auction of recent reprintings fit for a home library.

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So what did Ken Gloss say about my books?

The Monthly Review might be worth close to what it’s being offered for online – $2,000 – however, I’ll need to find a collector particularly interested in dictionaries or Samuel Johnson. Luckily there were a few dealers who had buyers that might be interested and are going to see if they want to purchase the book. I’ll have to give the dealers commission but I’m ok with that if they can get a great price. The Dryden translation, however, appears to be a later copy, perhaps late 18th century, and only worth a few hundred dollars. I learned a lot, and in any event, I’m up on both!

While the fair was a rare opportunity to get appraisals from an industry leader, most of the time collectors have to do their own research online. Here are four tips for evaluating books online:

Reviews, reviews, reviews.

Don’t just consider a seller’s ratings and reviews on the site you are purchasing on, look at their reviews on other sites they may also sell on. Sellers will often use the same trade name and username across sites.

Look at other lots they’re selling.

Are they in the business of selling items like the one you are purchasing? If they are, that’s a good sign that the item you receive will be similar to how it is represented. If they aren’t, their reviews might be attributed to other items and could be less relevant to the type of item you are are purchasing.

Get good images to assess condition.

Condition is key in determining value, and you want to ensure you are seeing the exact item you are purchasing. For books, you want to assess condition of the binding and pages. Is the binding tight or loose? Are the pages foxed or faded? In order to assess this, you want to ensure the pictures are of the actual item. You can find out by checking them in Google image search. If there aren’t enough high quality images of the item, ask the seller to post more. If the seller is reluctant or is recycling other images of the item, pass on the purchase.

Check prices of past sales.

Unless you are a dealer, you might not have access to the database of auction sale records. Invaluable, for example, offers a subscription to its price archive. Another great place to find current sales comps is AddAll, which aggregates prices across many popular listing sites. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Different editions or printings might yield very different prices. If you aren’t sure which edition the book is, check WorldCat and enter in as many keywords as you know about the book in question.

Follow Nick Ducoff on Twitter at @nickducoff.

Looking for rare collectible books? Preview upcoming sales including Sworder’s Fine Art Auctioneers’ Books and Maps (April 26), J. Levine’s Fine Estates Day 1: Antiques, Collectibles, Furnishings & Decor (April 28), Auctionata US’ Rare & Exceptional Books (April 28), Tajan’s Books (May 3), Lyon & Turnbull’s Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs (May 4), and more.