Getting your books appraised

On September 22, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Kenneth Gloss

Kenneth Gloss appraising books at one of his open talks. Visit his Brattle Book Shop website for more info at to get info of talks where he'll do appraisals

Kenneth Gloss appraising books at one of his open talks. Visit his Brattle Book Shop website for more info at to get info of talks where he’ll do appraisals

What the Job of the Appraiser Is

Thanks to programs like PBS’ Antiques Roadshow in combination with the recession of the past few  years more people than ever have been taking a look at their personal libraries to see if perhaps they have a book or two or more that might have a surprising or even a suspected financial value. People  request appraisals of their books for a variety of reasons. The volumes may be part of a current or future estate settlement, whether for death or divorce. Appraisers are also called in for insurance estimates and even in criminal cases.  One criminal case in particular that I worked on, the appraised value of the books was a deciding factor in the length of the accused person’s jail term.

As an appraiser, I can provide an unbiased opinion on the value of an entire collection, a small  group of books or even a single volume. I can give either a quick verbal appraisal or a detailed, formal appraisal that is written out and referenced with sources if there is any dispute.  Any legal situation usually requires a formal appraisal and the cost varies from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on the nature of the appraisal itself.

Another factor that affects the appraisal is the role of the appraiser. Is the appraiser an independent estimator or a potential buyer? The more formal the appraisal, the further away the appraiser should be (in terms of buying interests) from the materials themselves. The Internal Revenue Service restricts dealers who have helped amass the collection in any way from being the appraiser in a property value case. I have turned down some appraisal jobs and let the client know that it was because I didn’t want to restrict myself from bidding in the future.

The final appraisal report will vary in total amount depending on whether the client requested a wholesale or retail price evaluation. Wholesale appraisals are done in cases where the collection may be sold to other dealers, while a retail appraisal is done for insurance and other such cases where the entire collection would have to be replaced. When you call an appraiser, be sure that you are both very clear about the nature of the appraisal and the intended purpose of the report.

Doing It Yourself

Many people think that an appraiser is unnecessary. A good number of people approach me at lectures and want to figure out the values themselves. They may think that an appraiser won’t give them a straight answer so they decide to scour the price guides on their own. However, all of those catalogs and auction reports must be used judiciously. The prices in American Book Prices Current, for instance, are based on particular volumes sold at auctions. The books in your collection may be in better or worse shape, vary slightly in detail or may not be in high demand at the time you go to sell. Nothing, not even the best price guide in the world, can substitute for the experience and knowledge of a professional appraiser.

Most dealers can look through a list and immediately note the books of value and the rare volumes  that can net you a profit. It can save a seller a great deal of time if he or she gets an informal initial appraisal from a knowledgeable dealer. If you are upfront with the dealer and make it clear that you   may get a second opinion, there won’t be any hard feelings.

When preparing a list of books, be sure to note the author, title, date and publisher. I generally assume that the books are in good condition. However, if you have a signed or illustrated edition, bring that to the appraiser’s attention. The first question I usually ask is approximately how  many books there are in the entire collection. I then want to know if a large number are on one specific subject. Someone who amasses 100 books on orchid growing, for example, likely will have some volumes of value.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: the less the book is about, the more valuable it is. A 200-page book on World War II in most cases isn’t as valuable, as a 200-page book on General Patton. Supply and  demand also dictates a book’s selling potential. Currently, the trend in collecting is towards purchasing the best of the best, the top-notch books in each category rather than buying complete sets of all the books on that topic, The trend is inflating the prices of the top books and driving down demand and prices for the mid-range books. The mid-range is even harder to sell today than in              previous years.

What is rare?

Essentially, a book that is limited in supply and unique for some reason is rare. The first English edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not as rare as the first German edition but is worth more because it is in higher demand. Any of the children’s books illustrated by Maxfield Parrish or N.C. Wyatt can fetch u p to $1,000 if they are signed and rare. One mistake that many people make is thinking that their collection isn’t worth much because they don’t have even a single title that is considered rare. In reality, a collection of 1,000 books, even if they are only worth $2-5 dollars a piece, can net the seller several thousand dollars.

There is the occasional client who has had a rare book and not been aware of it. One house I visited in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a woman was selling me a collection of books that she hoped would be worth about $1,000 dollars. I gave her a bid of $900 on them. She asked if there was anything else I might take a look at. On a nearby shelf, she had a set of a dozen books by Robert Frost. I leafed through them and then looked in the front pages.

There, hand-written and signed, were stanzas by Frost himself, a gift to the woman’s late husband. These 12 books were worth thousands of dollars, far more than the woman expected to receive for her collection.

Sometimes, it pays to spend the extra moments looking under the jacket or the last fin of the book – you never know what you might find. If you are unsure about the value of what you do find, call in an appraiser. He or she will give you an honest and thorough answer or point you in the right direction if you want to do it yourself.

Kenneth Gloss is the proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, one of America’s oldest and largest antiquarian bookshops at 9 West Street. He can be reached at 1-800-447-9595 or visit He has appeared frequently on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow and, lists scheduled open talks where Ken offers appraisals that attendees bring or will do so during shop hours.


Sources for Book Values:

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter (Oak Knoll Books)

American Book Prices Current edited by Katherine and Daniel Leab (Bancroft Parkman, Inc.)

Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide by Allen and Patricia Ahearn (G,P. Putnam’s Sons)

Book Prices Realized – CD-Rom (Interloc Software, $295)

Huxford’s Old Book Value Guide by Bob and Sharon Huxford (Collector Books)


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