How precious is a first edition Lord of the Rings?
January 4, 2005 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I just came into possession of a first edition Lord of the Rings, I want to sell, and I have no idea what I'm doing. Advice appreciated.

They're all obviously well used. The dust jackets are worse for wear, and Fellowship's is held together with sellotape (!). Fellowship's binding is coming away. The impression numbers are 2nd, 2nd, 1st. The maps for the last two are pretty much mint, and Fellowship's is in fairly good condition.
posted by Pretty_Generic to Media & Arts (18 answers total)
You may want to browse around Both high-end dealers and the little guys sell books there and often have good descriptions of their books to help you figure the worth of yours against theirs.

I used to work at a used bookstore that did a lot of rare and antiquarian stuff and that was a site we checked out a lot to do price comparison and is probably one of the best choices for someone who has no idea what they're doing to start out.
posted by stefnet at 12:16 PM on January 4, 2005

I have a friend who is a Tolkien scholar/collector. I'll bounce it off him & post again.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 12:43 PM on January 4, 2005

It's probably not worth much. I'll take it off your hands for $1 ;-)

But seriously, when I was a kid I came into possession of a "how to do magic" stage tricks book from the 1880s. There are professional book appraisers who can take a look at your book and come up with an approximate value. The book I had turned out to not be worth much, so I kept it as a curiosity. Yours will make a great showpiece even if it's not worth your weight in gold.
posted by Servo5678 at 1:04 PM on January 4, 2005

I've done a lot of work for a rare book dealer and I'd bet that thing is worth quite a bit. Especially given how fanatical LTR fans are. It's all about the market for the book in question. Shit maybe Peter Jackson will buy it for a cool million.
Find a good rare book dealer in your area and take it in for an appraisal. Then take it to a couple more. I know that some people charge around $100 an hour for appraisals, but if it is just one book then they probably won't charge you. But, definitely show it to someone who knows what they are talking about and I would advise against having it rebound.
posted by trbrts at 1:12 PM on January 4, 2005

According to this page:

"Another important factor is whether a particular title is considered to be the author's major work, either by consensus, or occasionally because of television or film exposure. Prices for first editions of J.R.R. Tolkein's trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) have soared in the last decade. A fine set might be worth between £18,000 and £25,000 now and, with renewed interest because of the film, this trend is likely to continue."

With that level of damage, they're probably not worth that much. I know from comic collecting that the difference between "fine" and "good" condition can be as much as 90% of the value.

Without a doubt, you need to go to an antique appraiser who specializes in books. Then, of course, you need to actually find someone willing to pay whatever they tell you to ask.

Final thought: these books, you believe, are first editions. Are they AMERICAN first printings, or English? That's a huge difference as well.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:20 PM on January 4, 2005

(By "not worth that much," I mean they're likely not worth 18,000 pounds, not that they wouldn't be worth anything.)
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:22 PM on January 4, 2005

posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:27 PM on January 4, 2005

I second the use of for getting a preliminary idea. I worked at a used bookstore and that was the main way our prices were determined (i.e. a book is only worth what someone will pay for it). Compare yours with theirs with regards to condition. This will give you a good ballpark range. Then take them for appraisal. If what you hear doesn't jive with what you'd already figured out, get a second opinion. You might want to go ahead and get a second opinion anyway, since appraisals can vary greatly.
posted by wallaby at 1:32 PM on January 4, 2005

I believe there were also reproduction 1st edition / 1st printings of those books in the 60s; sometimes it can be very hard to tell the real thing, such as in the case of the Kerouac reproductions which have flooded the market lately. It's all about condition, though, and not necessarily original condition. You have have a good book conservator / restorer fix spines, neutralize the paper and do a few other things to reduce future foxing and damage. I imagine that every dollar spent fixing the books would pay off when selling the books (or when giving them to a library for the tax break!).
posted by luriete at 1:53 PM on January 4, 2005

Hey... related subject, different book: I have a leather-bound edition of "The More Than Complete Hitchhiker's Guide". Bound in the volume is the whole series, including, among others, The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Funny thing is, though, on the binding, it has those two titles as The Hitchhiker's Guide the Universe and The Restaurant at the End of the Galaxy. Is such an edition, with a typo, collectible (i.e. valuable)?
posted by Doohickie at 2:34 PM on January 4, 2005

You might also want to take a look at Addall for other dealers' prices, just to get an idea.
posted by adamkempa at 2:48 PM on January 4, 2005

Doohickie - apparently the entire first printing had that typo on the spine. I'd doubt that the typo makes this version any more (or less) valuable.
posted by WestCoaster at 3:37 PM on January 4, 2005

Congrats for having the UK edition! The desirability is not entirely terrific, alas. When collectors are willing to pay an astronomical sum of money for a set of books, they'd also prefer they be impossibly flawless copies, thankyouverymuch. (Binding and tape problems CAN be fixed by a competent repairperson, but bookbinders frequently have a backlog of four to eight weeks' worth of work. Also, they perform very skilled and specialized work, so their prices aren't cheap.) Any good used-book-shop proprietor will give you a free verbal appraisal. A written appraisal for insurance purposes might cost you $50.

Keep a realistic attitude. In my experience [six years' employment in the field], people tend to overlook flaws once they know the book might be valuable. (It's like with kids -- "of course my children would never cause trouble in school! you must be mistaken!") If you sell them to a bookshop, it's poor form to argue with the bookbuyer and insist on how great and valuable they are. But I'm not suggesting the books are worthless or boring, either -- just that a bookshop tends to be more critical. Their judgment will be based on their particular experiences.

Above all, I hope you will take the time to appreciate and enjoy them! That's why we have books.
posted by oldtimey at 7:17 PM on January 4, 2005

I imagine that every dollar spent fixing the books would pay off when selling the books (or when giving them to a library for the tax break!).

My understanding is that from a collector's perspective, having a book repaired actually devaules the book(coming from "A gentle madness" and a lot of experience in books).
posted by drezdn at 9:25 PM on January 4, 2005

A few things to bear in mind:

1. A lot depends on the condition of the book. Yes, there are collectors who will pay £18,000 for a first edition of LOTR, but at that price they will expect the book to be flawless: first editions, first impressions (none of your measly second impressions, thank you very much), bindings undamaged, dustwrappers unblemished, and no marks of previous ownership. Your set is obviously not in such good condition, and that will make a huge difference to the price.

2. You should also be aware that modern first dealers operate a big mark-up: certainly 2x, often 3x or 4x. (Why? because books often remain in stock for a long time, so it may be six months, a year or more before the dealer sees a return on his investment. Books are not as liquid as stocks and shares.) Just because you see a book offered for sale at £1000, it doesn't mean that you can expect to receive £1000, or anything like it, when you sell it to a dealer.

3. Also, bear in mind that dealers don't like to have multiple copies of the same book in stock. A dealer who already has a nice set of LOTR on display in his front window, and perhaps another set down in the basement, is not going to be particularly keen to buy your set -- why should he? after all, he already has a good deal of money tied up in the book, with no expectation of an immediate return on his investment. (True, there is a steady demand for copies of LOTR, but there are also a lot of copies coming onto the market at the moment, as the people who bought them new in the mid-1950s are now dying off or moving into retirement homes and selling their books.)

4. Finally, remember that prices in the modern firsts market tend to fluctuate unpredictably. A lot depends on how anxious a particular dealer is to sell a particular book. If he's been lucky enough to pick it up very cheaply, or if he's just sold another book at a handsome profit, he may think: 'oh good, I can afford to price it fairly high, even if I have to wait six months for a customer'. But if he's had to pay a fancy price for it, or if business hasn't been so good lately, he may think: 'I really need the money, I'd better price it to sell quickly'.

I see from your user profile that you live in London, so here are some central London dealers you might try: Ulysses (in Museum Street, just opposite the British Museum), Bell, Book & Radmall (in Cecil Court, near Leicester Square tube station), Any Amount of Books (in Charing Cross Road, a short walk up the road from Cecil Court). But don't set your hopes too high: this is a saleable book, but not a hugely valuable one. Think of it as the price of a decent meal in a restaurant, and you probably won't be far wrong; and if you get enough to buy yourself a bottle of wine with your meal, well, think of that as a bonus.
posted by verstegan at 3:46 AM on January 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I spoke to my friend, and he was absolutely agog about the books - but he's guessing he would not be able to afford them. But either way, can you send me an email with more info? Condition, etc. I'll pass it along to my friend, and see what info I can get - he's a bibliophile with a big brain.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:23 AM on January 5, 2005

The folks at Thorton's Bookshop in Oxford are pretty hard-core into Tolkien and could probably help you out. I have had nice dealings with them as a customer.
posted by kreinsch at 11:16 AM on January 5, 2005

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