Invaluable Guide to Buying Books, Maps and Manuscripts

“Good book collectors buy what they love, think for themselves, and create their own new areas of collecting,” says David Bloom, Head of Books, Maps and Manuscripts at Freeman’s. “There is no substitute for looking at and handling innumerable books and other antiquarian paper and reflecting deeply on their cultural and material context, and the voyage that brought them into your hands.”

Collectors of books, maps, and/or manuscripts generally begin collecting because of an interest in literature or history, through which they connect to a particular item or a collection of items that are part of a larger context. Prices in these categories fluctuate due to trends in collecting, as well as demand, scarcity, and the financial market.

“Continuing the trend of the last 10 years, these markets are increasingly and capriciously selective, favoring high spots and meretricious glamour over connoisseurship,” says Bloom.

Book collectors should always start with the themes they are interested in visually or academically before considering an item’s investment value. Starting with accessibly priced pieces also helps collectors familiarize themselves with the process and field as they build a solid foundation for their collection.

Left: “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, first edition, 20th century; Right: Oda a Joan Miro by Joan Brossa,
first edition, 1973, signed, Manhattan Rare Book Company

Collecting Books

While there are many approaches to collecting books, the first step is to narrow the focus to themes that speak to your interests. Popular subjects can be classified by:

  1. Era: Books from a particular time and place, like the Victorian era.
    Author: Books written by one author, like different versions of the same title.
  2. Advance copies: Pre-first edition books, including galleys, proofs, and manuscripts printed in a limited run prior to the publication of the first standard edition.
  3. Art books: Books with decorative qualities such as artist-executed covers or decorative bindings and edges, including fore-edge paintings that reveal a scene when the pages are fanned slightly.
  4. Small, fine, and private presses: Books from small publishing houses that focus on literary niches that are often neglected, but produce gems in poetry, genre fiction, or avant-garde authors.
  5. Genre: Books that are grouped by a specific topic, including cookbooks and photography books.
  6. Limited editions: Books with a very limited number of copies in the print run that was strictly defined prior to its issue.
  7. First editions: Books from the first print run of the book, also known as first impressions.
  8. Illustrated books: Books collected for the artist or the artistic method used to create the illustrations.
  9. Signed copies: Books signed by the author are more valuable and have a more personalized touch.
  10. Incunabula: Books written before the start of the 16th century in Europe.

Establishing Value

The value of a book is determined by the demand, perceived importance, rarity, and most importantly, its condition.

Demand for a book can be impacted by the location of the auction. Sales tend to be higher be in areas near where a book was originally published or where the author lived.

Perceived Importance: A book’s impact on literary and popular culture is its perceived importance. An author like Shakespeare who is recognized around the world will garner more attention and competition than lesser-known contemporaries.

Rarity: Scarcity of comparable material adds to a book’s desirability and value. For example, when Nicolaus Copernicus’s “De Revolutionibus Orbis Coelestrium” sold for $2,210,500 at Christie’s New York on June 17, 2008, it sold for well above its estimate largely because there are few comparable examples of the same quality.

Condition refers to a book’s physical appearance and the completeness of its contents. Most auction houses provide general notes on condition in the catalog entry of each book, and you may request a condition report, which provides a more detailed description of the state of the book. A book’s condition is broken down into the following categories:

  • As New: In the same condition as when it was published.
  • Fine (F/FN): Close to new and there are no defects to the book, jacket, or pages.
  • Very Good (VG): Shows some signs of wear but no tears or binding or paper.
  • Good (G): Used and worn but complete.
  • Fair: Used and worn but the text is complete; may lack endpapers or half titles.
  • Poor: Sufficiently worn and may be soiled or stained, or have loose pages among other defects.
  • Binding Copy: Text is complete and in perfect condition, but the binding is very bad, loose, off, or nonexistent.
  • Reading Copy: Poor to fair condition and the text is complete and readable.

The Collected Works of Sir Winston Churchill, The Centenary Edition [The Second World War,
The World Crisis, Speeches, etc.], Manhattan Rare Book Company

The descriptive language used in the catalog and condition reports is useful to know when determining whether or not to bid and how much to bid. Here are some important terms to know when examining condition:

  • Bookworm: Small holes in pages caused by insect larvae, commonly found in very early books (also called worming or wormholes).
  • Dampstain: A light stain (typically tan or gray) to either the cover or the pages of the book caused by exposure to moisture.
  • Darkening or fading: A darkening or intensifying of colors found in the book due to exposure to light.
  • Edgeworn: Worn edges of a hardcover book.
  • Foxing: Brown- or rust-colored spotting on the pages caused by a chemical reaction.
  • Leaf or leaves: The smallest and standard physical unit of paper in a printed work.
  • Loose: Loosened binding of the book.
  • Made-up copy: Assembled using other incomplete or defective copies.
  • Price clipped: The price has been cut from the top corner of the cover.
  • Re-backed: The spine and/or hinges have been replaced or mended with a new material.
  • Rebound: The binding has been replaced.
  • Shaken: Sections of the book have loosened considerably but have not detached.
  • Uncut: Edges of the book are in an untrimmed state and are somewhat uneven.

Collecting Maps

A map has the ability to capture a particular time and place in history, and collectors enjoy being able to acquire a piece of that history that interests them the most. When buying maps, it is important to identify what appeals to you aesthetically and personally.

Approaches to collecting include (but are not limited to) selecting a:

  • Specific location or a single region’s cartographic history.
  • Time period
  • Cartographer
  • Type of map: Sea maps, town plans, battle plans, celestial charts, geological maps, and miniature maps all have their own collectors.
  • Theme: In the past, collectors have taken an interest in certain maps because they feature mistakes in cartography, imagined locations, or depictions of fictional locales.

Maps are typically sold in two formats: as single sheet (broadsheet) or bound in an atlas or book. Maps bound in books or atlases tend to be in better condition because the format protects against the elements and the wear and tear that tend to impact the single sheet format.

Rare pictorial map of the Bahamas, published in Miami by George Annand, 1951, The Lusher Gallery

Establishing Value

The value of a map is determined by:

  • Rarity
  • Age
  • Popularity of the cartographer
  • Locations depicted
  • Aesthetic qualities
  • Historical importance
  • Size: Large maps are more desirable, which increases the value; smaller maps are less expensive but easier to store and protect.
  • Condition

When buying a map at auction, always request a condition report, especially if you cannot view the piece in person. Here are some important terms to know when reviewing the condition report of a potential purchase:
Staining: Maps can sometimes contain various types of stains. The effect of a stain on the value of a map depends on its visual impact and the type of map. Decorative maps are impacted most by staining.

  • Coloring: A vibrantly colored map is most valued by those who collect for decorative purposes. However, some collectors believe that coloring detracts from the beauty of the map itself. There are different grades of coloring to be aware of when examining a map. The basic scale includes original color, recent or later color (done in the original style), and bad color (original or recent) which is faded or damaged coloring.
  • Rips or tears: These can be relatively common and easily repaired without much notice. A tear can impact the map’s value, but is subjective based on the piece and the extent of the damage.
  • Creases, folds, or centerfolds: Maps in atlases tend to have a vertical fold line down the center that should not impact their value. Other creases and folds can have a minimal impact on value.
  • Backing: A map has backing when it is secured to a broad or paper; backing can greatly impact value if a skilled restorer does not do it.
  • Margins: Maps with margins that have been trimmed lose value; however, some maps were issued with narrow margins and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. A map with part of its border missing will be greatly devalued.
  • Plate marks or imprints: Information printed on the map that generally includes the publisher, location of publication, and date of publication. This information adds to the value to the map and is important to look for when examining a piece.

Collecting Manuscripts

Manuscripts or autographs are desirable because they are original handwritten works. Because most are one-of-a-kind, these cultural objects are collected as a way to preserve history. Manuscripts exists from many areas, including literature, art, music, exploration, and science.

When collecting manuscripts, some people are interested in textual content alone, while others appreciate the decorative and textual qualities a manuscript can possess. Your collection should be based on what interests you the most.

Noah Webster autographed manuscript, page from the original draft of Webster’s 1828
“An American Dictionary of the English Language,” 2 pages, Antiquarian Archives

Some approaches to collecting include selecting from the following categories:

  • Significant historical events: Manuscripts written for or about an important event in history. Important documents related to events of historical significance include the manuscript account of Marco Polo’s travels, which sold for $1,387,000 at Sotheby’s London auction on December 3, 2008.
  • Time periods: A manuscript written during a particular time that captures the methods and practices of that period, for example, hand-made books of the Middle Ages.
  • Significant persons: A collection of documents written by an important historical, literary or artistic individual, such as a collection of manuscripts and letters written by Jane Austen.
  • Signatures: Signed documents by important figures, like former Presidents of the United States.
  • Illuminated manuscripts: These are texts that have been supplemented with such decorations as initials, borders, and miniature illustrations. This technique is commonly found in the surviving manuscripts of Late Antiquity, Renaissance, and the Middle Ages.

Establishing Value

The value of a manuscript is determined by its context and content, the popularity of the figure who wrote it, its rarity, and its condition. A recent record-breaking manuscript was a handwritten notebook by Alan Turing, which sold for $1,025,000 at Bonhams on April 13, 2015. The interest in this notebook was increased by both its rarity and the rising interest in Turing in the wake a critically-acclaimed film about his work decoding German messages during WWII.


The condition of a manuscript is important to its value. While some collectors place textual content above the look of the work, it should be intact and legible. Here are some important terms to know when understanding and grading manuscript condition:

  • Autograph: A manuscript written with one’s own hand
    Document: Anything printed, typed or written, to record or prove something
  • Foxing: Brown or yellow spotting that occurs on a manuscript due to a chemical reaction
  • Holograph: Entirely in the hand of the author
  • Integral leaf: The second page of a folded letter, often the address page
  • Inlay: The technique of reinforcing a manuscript on a mat or board
  • Letter sheet: A sheet of paper that is folded and sealed with an address of the outside and a letter on the inside
  • Silked: Backing or lamination of a manuscript with fine semi-transparent silk mesh
  • Typescript: A typewritten manuscript


When handling books, maps, and manuscripts, it is important remember the following:

  • Keep your hands clean and keep your purchases away from acidic papers like newsprint.
  • Keep books, maps, and manuscripts in stable, cool, clean, and non-humid environments.
  • Clean the spaces where they are stored regularly.
  • Consult conservators or dealers if items become damaged or are purchased damaged.

Tips for Buying Books, Maps & Manuscripts Online

De Architectura” by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, first edition in a modern language,
Manhattan Rare Book Company

It’s important to research your purchase beforehand as sales are often final, and you won’t always have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. Consider following these guidelines:

Examine the condition report & other identifying documents.

  • What does the documentation say?
  • What does it prove? Are the sources credible?
  • Who has paid for the authentication, and what warranty is extended to you, in the case that the authentication is later demonstrated to be erroneous?
  • What is the history of the item, and who has owned it?
  • Has it been altered, or is it fully intact?
  • What damages or restorations are there?

Register to bid several days in advance.

Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in bidding with.The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.

Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or sales.

  • How does the auction house handle taxes?
  • Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
  • How will the item be shipped?
  • How long do you have to pay for the item?
  • How do you contact the auction house, dealer gateway, or online retailer with questions?

Ask follow-up questions.

If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.

Research past prices.

Make sure your bid is competitive but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.

Don’t bid unless you’re sure.

All sales at an auction are final. Once you have successfully bid and won your object, the auction house can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.

Additional Resources

The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABBA)
ABAA: Collecting Books
Independent Online Booksellers Association
The Manuscript Society
The Manuscript Society: Criteria
Library of Congress: Book Preservation
Rare Maps
Rare Maps: Terms

Ready to begin or add to your collection? Find rare books, maps & manuscripts available on Invaluable.