Antique Books, Part 3: Purchasing

Hunting for antique books can be a lot of fun, even if one never plans to purchase. Unfortunately for Americans, one usually has much more luck finding antique books in Europe. When purchasing antique books, a primary concern is paying an appropriate price for the value of the book.


Antiques can run from half the price of a coffee to thousands of dollars. As I left to study in London, a friend informed me that a good rule for estimating prices in England is that one can expect to pay £10 per 100 years. I purchased a book published in the late 1700s for about £30, so I suppose this is a good place to start.

To figure out if a price is fair, you must do research. First, early, and rare editions are more valuable. Admired writers are valuable. High-quality binding is valuable. Books owned by someone famous are valuable (and often not for sale). Because of improvements in mass printing towards the end of the Victorian era, one can often find later editions of Dickens and other popular authors that are 100+ years old, but practically worthless. The best way to get an estimate is to look at half a dozen books that are the same or similar, then see what the average is.

Reason for Interest

Consider your reason for purchasing antique books. Do you plan to resell? Are you using them for research? Are you studying the binding? Do you just think they’re awesome? All of this will affect the price you are willing to pay for the book.

If you’re looking at antiques as a monetary investment, be prepared to pay. Most people in this category want well-preserved books and can easily pay several thousand dollars for a 3-volume Victorian original. Books that are highly damaged are much less valuable than undamaged books, but they allow great insight into the binding process because much of the inside bits are exposed.

I buy many cheap antiques because I love the smell of old books, and I love to read the inscriptions and consider the previous owners as I read their books. I sometimes feel guilty about sitting down to read my first edition of Dombey and Son, but I don’t feel guilty about reading my cheap antiques because I’m not risking damage to something of irreplaceable value.

Book Care

Look at the way your potential purchase has been stored. This is of greatest importance when purchasing from the internet. Run away if you see this:

This book has suffered like a Dickensian orphan.

This book has been damaged in the scanning. However, scanning one side of the cover and the spine is appropriate since the book is tilted to preserve the spine:

This book enjoys great care and prestige.

This is even better:

This book is admired as an upstanding member of its community.

Books sold by a knowledgeable seller will offer all information available on the book’s title page. If dates are unknown, a good seller will state that the publication date is unavailable, then will give an estimate. A good seller will also give detailed descriptions of foxing or damage to the book and pictures of the most problematic areas if something is particularly damaged. Most good sellers will avoid scanning pages because of light damage, but some may give photos of an average page to help the buyer see the quality.

If buying from a store, look for antique books that have been stored neatly on a shelf in a low-moisture environment away from direct light. A seller with a bookcase that faces the window does not know how to care for old books. With this said, one is likely to find better deals from sellers who don’t know how to care for old books because they often aren’t aware of the worth. It’s best to find a seller somewhere between knowledgeable and ignorant—one who won’t do too much damage to the books, but will also give good deals.


When researching antique books, Ebay and are the best general resources. Research the same title from a similar year and see what others are charging for the book. Take into account descriptions of damage. Ebay is more valuable because it allows for pictures, unlike Amazon, but some of the better Amazon sellers give detailed descriptions. If you can’t find information on a particular title, look at other titles of similar popularity from the same decade. Unpopular books are often very valuable or very worthless. Most importantly, take your time. Unless you’ve found a rare deal that’s about to leave the market, it’s worth the time to research your antiques and make sure you know what you’re getting.

For those of you worried about the abused book in the first picture, see Antique Books, Part 1 for an explanation.

Antique Books, Part 1: Handling
Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text
Antique Books, Part 4: Storage


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