The Price Guide Is Right (or Is It?)

Come on down, book dealer (with apologies to Bob Barker)! I’ve got a collection of books for you—price guides on antiques, some old Mandeville’s and a few really pretty auction catalogs. Or you can have what’s behind Door Number Two.

As a bookseller specializing in books about antiques and collectible subjects, I would be looking through the boxes like a kid under the Christmas tree. But I expect many of you would see the copyright dates and subject matter and decline to purchase, regardless of the price of the lot.

What value do price guides about antiques have in the out-of-print book market? And how do we evaluate them? The date of publication is not the most important factor.

We need instead to consider first whether the price guide is a general one, like Kovel’s and Book Prices Used & Rare, or from a more specialized field such as Tomart’s Illustrated Disneyana Catalog and Price Guide. The general antiques price guide is published in excess of 50,000 copies each year, so unless your customer is looking for a particular year in order to complete a set or looking for an individual listing that appeared in only one edition, these books are not in demand and have little value. More specialized works, however, are generally not published on a yearly basis, and seldom in quantities of over 10,000 copies. (A “bestseller” in our field may equate to a total of 2,000 copies sold!) How many copies were indeed published, and in how many editions? How many other books are there on the subject? I always check the bibliography or sources when evaluating a book to ascertain its place in the timeline. If a book is the first on a given collectible topic, it matters little what date is on the cover. That’s “raw” material for the collector, and the information it holds (correct or incorrect) may have been the basis of guides that followed. Always desirable.

We then need to look at the subject matter. Books are published because an antique or collectible is popular at the time, and it needs to still be popular now. In the 1970s, people were collecting telephone pole insulators and ceramic containers that liquor was sold in. Today, there is little interest in the routine majority of those collectibles. If there is not any collector interest in a field, you won’t create any handling the reference book, nor will offering an old pricing guide at an extraordinary price create any interest in the collectible.

Is the book an illustrated value guide, or does it just list items with a brief description and then assign a value? (Note: this question is not as applicable to price guides about books.) If a reference book has good information and quality illustrations but was published in 1985, it may have more merit to the collector (and more demand for you, the seller) than a 2007 publication that does not have as much depth. Many of the most useful and consequently desirable books we stock are out-of-print titles we have purchased at shops and sales. Often there is an old date right in the title and the seller obviously did judge the book by its cover.

Are the values expressed in fixed amounts, dollar ranges, or scarcity charts or ratings? The latter two categories annoy the book buyer who doesn’t want to think, but in the long run, they are more accurate and will help maintain value in an older guide.

Auction catalogs, with estimated prices printed alongside the item’s illustration and/or description, and often with a “prices realized” sheet laid in, generally have a short life on the book market and don’t gain much value over a period of time. Catalogs from the big auction houses, which originally sold for $20 to $50 on a subscription basis, sell for a fraction of the original price. There are exceptions, and the criteria for evaluating such catalogs is basically the same as for any other pricing reference. Important British Ceramics Sale with only a fraction of the items illustrated (and in black-and-white) was important only to the consignee and Sotheby’s, whether that auction was yesterday or twenty years ago. The catalog of The Glover Collection, an auction that sent Rookwood art pottery prices out-of-sight (and from which they have not declined in almost seventeen years) is an important milestone in the sale of American pottery, and is as useful a reference work as ever was published. (Catalogs from subsequent auctions of Rookwood and other ceramics are not nearly in as much demand.)

I have made reference to Mandeville and Book Prices Used & Rare in this article, placing them in context to books on other collectible subjects. Like the rare breed of person we booksellers are, books about books is a field that doesn’t always behave like other categories. Especially with the advent of the internet. Who would have thought that AB Bookman’s Weekly, the Holy Grail for booksellers, would be one of its first victims, though in hindsight we can see why. You can cover most types of antiques in a single encyclopedic volume, but there are millions of books out there. As I try to apply the questions asked about antiques-related price guides to book price guides, I find that some questions are appropriate, while others are not. Thus, at this point in the discussion, I’ll be satisfied that I got the price of the washer and dryer correct, and let my learned colleagues gamble everything on the cruise to Jamaica. In other words, somebody should write a future IOBA Standard article on the issue of the printed price guide, new and old, for values of books.

Nancy Johnson operates Nancy Johnson, Bookseller out of Denver, CO

IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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