BEST OF: Appraising for Booksellers


All of you have gotten the phone call. The person on the other end has inherited or been given or found at a garage sale a book/books which he believes may be the next record breaker at a Sotheby’s auction. “What’s it worth?” he wants to know. That is not the type of appraisal this article is going to address. Those appraisals can be handled with a few simple sentences such as, “That copy of Tarzan’s Revenge published in 1952 missing the front cover and the last three pages is worth roughly 50 cents if I am in a charitable mood.” I get my share of these too, probably more than my share. This article also does not address the type of appraisal that we all do to raise money for a worthy cause. This is where you and other appraisers of antiques, fine art, toys, etc. donate your time and give verbal guesstimates of the fair market value of various “treasures” brought in by hopeful people. This last is the cheap version of the Antiques Roadshow. Those are sometimes fun, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes boring. The type of appraisal this article addresses requires a written report with a lot of research backing it up. This type of appraisal usually gets scrutinized by the IRS or an insurance company.

In 2002 when I decided to explore adding “appraiser” to my business card, I started attending the meetings of the local chapter of the International Society of Appraisers (ISA). What I learned at those meetings was that I was ignorant of what it takes to get an appraisal accepted by insurance companies and that a poor appraisal could land me in trouble with the IRS. So I joined the appraisal society and took courses in appraisal theory and practice. The courses I took combined with my 8 years as a bookseller gave me the accreditation I wanted. I did my first appraisal on a library with approximately 4,000 books shortly after that.

I have done a number of appraisals since. Most of them have been for estate purposes: to value an estate for taxes or to value it for dissolution as in the case of a divorce. I have also worked on a few insurance damage claim appraisals and valued other collections so that they can be insured. The most critical types of appraisals are for items being donated where the donor wants to take a tax deduction. I’ll say more about this type of appraisal later.

Back in the 1980s the United States went through a painful and expensive savings and loan shakeout. A number of these organizations had loaned money based on real estate appraisals which were not realistic and were, in some cases, fraudulent. A standards setting board, the Appraisal Foundation, was founded and a standard called USPAP, for Uniform Standards for Professional Appraisal Practice, was written and accepted in 1989. This standard sets guidelines for ethics and report writing. It is updated periodically and appraisers are encouraged to keep up with the changes. It has become more and more important. Appraisals which are seen by the IRS are judged by this standard. USPAP has been cited in court cases as the standard to follow in writing appraisals. The appraisal societies teach courses on USPAP and members of the societies sit on the Appraisal Standards Board giving input to changes and keeping their members up-to-date.

What goes into a written appraisal? There is general information: identification of the client, purpose of the appraisal, where and when the items being appraised were seen by the appraiser, type of value being used (fair market value, replacement value), method of determining value, markets explored to determine value, and analysis of the markets’ present trends. There are statements relating to the appraiser’s ethical standards and the standards the appraiser follows in writing the report. For the higher valued books, a description of the book or set of books is written, a photograph is inserted into the description, and I include a listing of sources consulted in determining value (auction records, catalogs, online sources, other booksellers consulted) and the reasoning used in setting value. In the Addenda I also always include a page listing sources for bibliographic and value information, a glossary of terms used, my professional profile, and a page discussing how a book’s condition is determined.

The IRS has experts who review appraisals, especially the ones for donations. For donations of items valued at more than $5,000, a copy of the appraisal must be attached to the income tax return and a special form filled out and signed by both the appraiser, the donor and the donee. IRS regulations state that an appraisal of property being donated that is valued in excess of $5,000 must be done by a qualified appraiser and in the latest revision of regulations for Form 8283 dated December, 2006, they give their definition of a “qualified appraiser.” Their definition in simple terms says that this individual has earned appraiser designation from a recognized appraisal organization or has met certain minimum educational requirements and experience requirements, and regularly prepares appraisals for which he/she gets paid. The IRS’s Art Appraisal Services department reviews these appraisals.

Each year at the annual conference of the International Society of Appraisers, a representative of the IRS Art Appraisal Services discusses changes in the regulations governing appraisals. At the conference in April of this year, he said that they are looking more closely at appraisals in order to weed out those who do not have the qualifications and do not follow the regulations. Speculation is that the same requirements for “qualified appraiser” will soon be extended to estate appraisals as well.

If you are considering doing appraisals, I would advise you to join an appraisal society and get the education. In addition to education and keeping members abreast of changing regulations, I have found several other advantages to being a member of the ISA. Individuals in the society help each other and give each other advice. They also refer business to each other. My business is listed on the society’s main website and on the North Texas Chapter’s website. This last listing has brought me some business. The monthly meetings are fun and educational and the parties are great too. The other two well known appraisal societies are the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) and the American Association of Appraisers (AAA). All three set high standards of ethics for their members and are concerned with their continuing education.

I have done some very interesting appraisals on books outside the genres I sell. One was for an old, thirty two pound Catholic Gradual. The monks who hand wrote the musical notes and words to the chants drew small faces on two of the capitals. Were the faces self-portraits or portraits of other monks? I found it fascinating. The most interesting appraisal I have done so far was for an estate containing thirty six special books. What made this appraisal so interesting was that all of the books had fore-edge paintings on them. I read two books on fore-edge paintings, and talked to three booksellers who have sold a number of books with such decorations in order to determine value. Some of the paintings were quite unusual. Two of the books had double fore-edge paintings, so that if you fanned the pages in one direction, you saw one painting, and then fanned the pages the opposite direction, you saw a completely different painting. Another had a painting of a hunting scene which started on the bottom edges of the pages, continued onto the front of the page edges and ended on the top of the page edges; most unusual and delightful! In this appraisal the books without the paintings were not really valuable. The value was in the charm and subject matter of the paintings.

Now I need to say a word about the people who call and want an “appraisal” but are really interested in selling the books to me. I generally ask if they want an appraisal or want to sell me the books. Because of ethical concerns, I can’t do both things. I also explain to people who want to know the value because they are interested in selling that the verbal appraisal is for retail value which they will not get if they sell to a bookseller because the bookseller has to cover his costs and make a profit. Sometimes it is necessary to explain the facts of life to people wanting to get retail prices for their books. They don’t like hearing that there are costs associated with online auctions, that garage and estate sales rarely bring in retail prices, and that trying to sell on one of the online book sites requires work, has costs, and seldom means instant riches. Life is difficult and so is bookselling.

I want to conclude this article by saying that my impression of booksellers in general is very good. When I have called or emailed a bookseller who has expertise in a certain area asking for advice or an opinion, I almost always get a courteous and helpful response. Thanks to all of you for being nice guys.

Shirley Dyess operates The Dust Jacket out of Irving, TX and can be contacted at http://www.thedustjacket.biz.

Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of The Standard.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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