Books up a river
November 2, 2012 7:10 PM   Subscribe

Tons of old (100-200 year old) books are sitting in an attic. I'm tasked with finding out how much they're worth. What do I do?

My grandfather has many old books, and he has employed me to use the power of the internet to determine their value. So far I have spent a couple days jotting down Title, Author, Copyright date, and Publisher info for every book. This is taking quite some time. I don't wish to cheat my grandfather (he's paying me to do this), but at the same time I have no idea what I'm doing. Would I be better off boxing them up and taking them to a rare books dealer in the Portland area, or can the internet help me in any way?
posted by Philipschall to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What sort of condition are they in?
posted by griphus at 7:11 PM on November 2, 2012

IF (and, that's the big IF) there is a used bookstore with a reputation for honesty, you might be able to contract with someone in-the-know to come and do a quick look to see if further appraisal is worthwhile. Please be prepared to pay someone an appropriate hourly rate to do this.
posted by HuronBob at 7:21 PM on November 2, 2012

Books are worth what someone's prepared to pay for them. Sale-price quotes you might find online from dealers are often speculative -- that is, a price that might be paid by somebody who absolutely has to get hold of that particular book -- and aren't a good guide to the price you might receive. See previously for more, and there are a few other threads that discuss this.
posted by holgate at 7:22 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you get an antiquarian bookseller (not just your average used book dealer: someone who specializes in rare books) to check for any valuable books? You could either pay him outright, or pay a commission that's a percentage of sales. This won't get rid of the majority of the books, sorry, but at least by having an expert look them over you'll lower the possibility of kicking yourself later (picture Antiques Roadshow: "I paid a dollar for this book at a yardsale!"..... "Congratulations, it's worth $5000!)

As for the majority, after the best are pulled out: the easiest method for you would probably be to sell them in bulk --- no cherry-picking, all or nothing --- to a used book dealer. Probably won't get you much money, but the books would be gone. Alternatively, if you're willing to put a lot more time into this: once you have that title/date/condition list made up, sell them yourself by listing them on ebay, or something like
posted by easily confused at 7:30 PM on November 2, 2012

You really need to give us an idea of what kind of books these are, or we are just speculating. List some of those titles/authors/editions. I've seen entire houses filled with books worth only their pulp value. If these are your grandfather's boyhood books, that might be what you've got. But of course there are individual books worth a fortune. Beyond that: if you are willing to try selling each book individually on Ebay or through something like Abebooks, you might realize something close to "retail value" but would take an awful lot of effort and a long time. Or, you could consign them to an auction or sell them to a dealer and 10-20% of that retail value. Easily confused suggests a hybrid method and I tend to agree with that approach as maximizing value without getting into undue effort. But, you may need to get grandpa over the idea there's some kind of gold mine up there.
posted by beagle at 7:49 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is hard to say without details but be prepared to accept much less than your grandfather may expect. It's counterintuitive, but even books that are a hundred years old are not necessarily worth a great deal of money. They are quite lovely to have around though.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 7:57 PM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know for a fact, but I'm pretty sure I read/heard somewhere that Powells will come look at book collections, it might be worth talking to them.
posted by alpinist at 8:06 PM on November 2, 2012

Finding out "how much they're worth" is not going to lead to a definitive dollar value. As holgate says, books are worth what someone's prepared to pay for them. The "value" of the books will depend not only on what books you have, but also on what condition they're in, whether you sell them in a lot or singly, whether you sell them to a dealer or at retail, whether you're in a hurry to unload them or willing to hold out longer for a higher price, and various other factors. That said, with some research I think you can get a sense of the relative value of different books. I'm no expert in the antiquarian book trade, but I'd suggest the advanced search at for sampling the data. Remember that the results you see represent current asking prices for other copies in other people's hands, not prices that anyone is laying on the barrelhead for your grandfather's copies. Other people may be able to charge more because they are antiquarian book dealers with strong reputations. Other people may also be setting their prices too high—there's no way of knowing whether a book is correctly valued until it sells. Even so, if there are twenty people trying to sell Book A for under a dollar and there's just one copy of Book B on the market for $500, that tells you something.

A few more tips: You might want to learn some terminology from the book trade to help you understand other people's listings and compare their books with your grandfather's. Read up about condition, too. And when searching for other books on the market to compare with the books in your grandfather's attic, make sure the details match up. A book that has the same title, author, printer, and year of printing (you're probably not looking at year of copyright for books 100-200 years old) but different size, binding, or other specifics may have a drastically different value.
posted by Orinda at 8:14 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are books from that time which are worth quite a lot. For example, if you've got an original volume of Audubon, you can pretty much name your price.

But the vast majority of books that old aren't worth anything.

I used to own a book which was published in 1615. It was amazing to look at, and I always enjoyed showing it to other people. But it was worth about $25. By the beginning of the 17th century, books were being published by the millions, and a randomly chosen book from that time really wasn't worth anything. Books from the 19th century are even worse in that regard.

The mere fact that something is old doesn't make it valuable.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:08 PM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, in the late 90s I bought a mid-19th century edition of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" in England for less than $10. Start with those oldest and in the best condition.
posted by rhizome at 10:01 PM on November 2, 2012

I'm not an expert, but I suspect the things you'd want to have checked out, in this order:

* Anything with plates, especially color plates.
* Anything whose author you recognize who was contemporary when the book was published, and see if it's a first edition
* The oldest books
* Anything signed by the author
* Anything that is in mint condition
* Anything that seems to be a themed set ("huh, why are all these books about Shropshire?")

Good luck, let us know if you discover anything significant.
posted by maxwelton at 10:46 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd second the advice to check a sample of the most likely prospects with the
advanced search at

For the likely prospects, concentrate on ones which are possibly first editions, with publishing dates in the author's lifetime. If you do find one listed with a high value, remember that that's the likely upper limit being asked by dealers, and in practice no one may actually be interested in your similar copy, or only be prepared to offer you one tenth of that price.

Also remember that with antiquarian books, condition is everything: every nick, every tiny spot of discoloration on a page reduces the value. Check out what is meant by Foxing and see how your books stand in that regard.
posted by Azara at 3:12 AM on November 3, 2012

Ascertaining the value of old books is an art and a trade. Their values are subject to taste, era and subject popularity.

Separate the fiction and non-ficton (if applicable). Century-old technical books on a specific subject in reasonable condition can be worth a few hundred dollars. Collectors and private libraries buy these. They will probably not be found on Abebooks.

Autobiographys of 18th & 19thC travellers and explorers have a following.

Of the fiction, separate the first editons and early edition books in *excellent* condition. Unless they are exceedingly rare they will be worth a max of $20 - $100 each (give or take) if someone wants to buy them. Books in less than excellent condition are not worth half those in excellent unless ridiculously rare.

If you have a rare book, the providence is important. Try to ascertain when your grandfather bought/received the books. Take a few notes of their origins.

Uncommon but not rare books with illustrations may be worth more to crafts folk for their images and covers. Consider selling attractive but otherwise non-collectible books in bulk online for craft purposes (eg: etsy).

The good old days of prizes in a grandparents bookcase are, by and large, sadly over.
posted by the fish at 5:06 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Details:
Romance/Adventure books from the 1880's to the 1920's. Only a couple first editions.
Priest's manuals from around the same time.
School books, children's primers and things of that nature, from 1880's to 1930's.
Literary collections (Emerson, Alexander Pope) from the 1870's
Engineering books from the 1840's
A collection of British Naval Medical Manuals from the 1860's

Some of them are in reprehensible shape, while others have nothing more than a faded jacket.
None of them are signed by the author. I get the feeling the books were collected by various family members over the years for sentimental reasons that have long since faded.
posted by Philipschall at 5:23 AM on November 3, 2012

I work for a non-profit that regularly sells books on Amazon. TONS of books. We go through tons of books. We've investigated Amazon but barring contacting a book dealer or seller, we have had some luck selling older books on ebay (especially first editions). I know ebay freaks people out but honestly, we nearly guaranteed to get a better price there than Amazon or AbeBooks. I'm not talking hundreds of bucks per but if you're looking for a quick way to off load some books, I think it's an option worth examining.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:32 AM on November 3, 2012

Should have mentioned, doing a completed listings search on ebay might give you an estimate (albeit a very ranging estimate) of worth, at least in the current market.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:33 AM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, can some mod explain why my suggestion got deleted? I didn't post a paid link or anything, just a generic link to a smartphone app offered by Amazon that does exactly what the asker wants.

FWIW, "professional" book resellers use similar apps constantly, to quickly check out hundreds of random books at yardsales and the like.

As for the barcoding aspect of it (okay, not a lot of 100+ year old books have barcodes), you can still look them up manually and get a ballpark idea of whether you have a century-old Harlequin Romance, or a 1st edition classic.
posted by pla at 6:22 AM on November 3, 2012

Chances are the books aren't worth very much. Especially if they aren't in good shape. Watching Antiques Roadshow always cracks me up. The appraiser gets all excited about a book, talks about the excellent condition, the rarity of it, and then says, "You could get up to thirty dollars for this!"

What you are describing doesn't sound like something collectors would be interested in. But the app pia describes sounds pretty cool.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on November 3, 2012

Make sure you go through all of the books to look for items left inside. Notes, photos, money, what have you. Flip through the pages, or gently shake them upside down, or, if the book is falling apart, go through page by page. If you don't have the time for it, at least make sure you look at all three page sides of each closed book to see if there's anything obvious inserted there that's making a tiny gap or wiggle in the otherwise straight closed-page appearance.

I've found so much stuff in used books!
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:19 AM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, can some mod explain why my suggestion got deleted? I didn't post a paid link or anything, just a generic link to a smartphone app offered by Amazon that does exactly what the asker wants.

The app does not do what the asker wants. The original question specifies that the books are 100-200 years old; the followup clarifies that some date from as late as the 1930s. Bar codes were introduced for commercial use in the mid 1970s. Bar code scanning will not help the asker estimate the value of a single book in the collection at hand. Entering the information manually is probably easier on a laptop or desktop computer than on a mobile device, and is more likely to yield relevant results on or eBay (the most active online antiquarian book markets that I know about) than on Amazon.

I realize that this response may get deleted as a derail, but I want to underline the point that easily confused raised and some of the other respondents have referred to: the antiquarian book market is different from the general used book market, although there is some overlap between the two. Philipschall's problem (how to value books from the 1840s-1930s) is probably best solved using the tools and expertise of the antiquarian market.
posted by Orinda at 2:57 PM on November 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I work in a used bookstore that does good business in rare and antique books. First thing I would do is stop jotting and start using; it includes all results from and sometimes more.

As beagle mentions above, it really does depend on the specific books; from your list I'd guess the engineering books are probably the best bet, but it's impossible to say without looking at them closely. For what it's worth, I've put lots of books from the late 1800s/early 1900s out on our 25-cent rack. There are many publishers from that era - Grosset & Dunlap, e.g. - who were popular but whose books are often worth very little. The 200-year-old books have a better chance, but the value will be almost totally dependent upon condition. I would suggest, if you don't want to look up each book yourself on Bookfinder, taking a box or three of the oldest books in the collection (including, as maxwelton suggests, any with "plates," or illustrations on different paper than the other pages) to at least 2, and probably 3, rare book dealers in your area - Longfellows, Charles Seluzicki Fine & Rare Books and Powell's come up quickly in a search. This helps triangulate against dishonesty, if you're worried about that, gives you a range of possible values and also might help you reduce any excessive expectations your grandfather may have.

HuronBob: IF (and, that's the big IF) there is a used bookstore with a reputation for honesty, you might be able to contract with someone in-the-know to come and do a quick look to see if further appraisal is worthwhile. Please be prepared to pay someone an appropriate hourly rate to do this.

Actually, we do free appraisals every day, often for multiple boxes of books, with no obligation to sell to us. Any reputable rare book dealer should do the same, in my opinion.

the fish: If you have a rare book, the providence is important. Try to ascertain when your grandfather bought/received the books. Take a few notes of their origins.

I think the word the fish is looking for is "provenance." But yes, anything that helps track where the book came from, who your grandfather got it from, etc., can add value. A good story helps sell antique books, for sure.
posted by mediareport at 1:06 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I regularly buy romance/adventure books from the 1880's to the 1920's and school books, children's primers and things of that nature, from 1880's to 1930's. I don't know about the rest, but I have never paid more than 75$ for one of them - and the $75 one was in great condition and had illustrations well preserved. I think both of those two categories, in particular, simply had a lot of copies made and so many copies have survived.
posted by corb at 10:56 AM on December 9, 2012

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