Old books worth thousands – are yours?

Late last year a book sold in New York for a record-breaking amount – a whopping US$14.2 million. It was for America’s first printed book, a tiny Book of Psalms produced in 1640. There are only 11 copies left of The Bay Psalm Book from the original 1700 copies printed.

But it’s not the highest price that a book has ever reached. Three books surpass the price fetched by The Bay Psalm Book. The St Cuthbert Gospel went for US$14.3 million, the Magna Carta comes in second at US$21.3 million, and topping them all is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester from the 1500s, which sold for US$30.8 million. You can see the theme of religion here, but if you dig down a bit further into the lower millions you’ll find The Birds of America by John James Audubon, copies of which have sold from US$7.9 to US$11.5 million. A first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales reached $7.5 million while Don Quixote fetched only $1.5 million.

Dipping down into the thousands, online bookseller AbeBooks last year sold a copy of  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for $19 877. It was a first edition that included an envelope from Golding with a hand-written postcard inside:  ‘Dear Miss Rhyder, Yes Lord of the Flies is the alleged translation of Beelzebub. I will sign your Nobel Speech if you send it.  Yours sincerely William Golding.’

A recent first edition of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye sold for US$8000. The more recently published Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie sold in July last year. Usually a first edition of this novel would find buyers at about the $4000 mark, but this edition – an uncorrected proof with a ‘rare and fragile’ original dustcover – sold for a tad over $14 000. It had more pages than the final published book, and the antiquarian bookseller said they could only imagine what it would have sold for if it had included Rushdie’s signature.

But don’t think that it’s only fiction that draws the big bucks. A worthy winner in the high-selling stakes was The Double Helix: A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA (1968). The signed first edition of James Watson’s book sold for $9500. Published in 1968, this book is a landmark title among science texts. But the book is a very human story and is much more than just a straight account of experiments and laboratories.

Children’s books can also be highly desirable to collectors. A copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold for $1.4 million. Who knows what a complete collection of original signed copies of the ‘Harry Potter’ series would sell for today?

In October last year several volumes of The London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, dating from 1732 to 1756, sold for US$13 159. Previously a selection of 116 volumes, which included the first issue, sold for US$26 083. The magazine is – incredibly – still published today. It gives me great hope for gr! Will our July 2001 issue one day be worth a hefty sum?

But it’s not only books and magazines that are prized by book-loving collectors. A signed letter from the late American astronomer Carl Sagan has fetched US$4795 and a signed photograph of Ernest Hemingway has sold for US$8250.

Stories like these from auction houses and online auction sites make you wonder what you might discover in your own library or how worthwhile it might be to fossick through out-of-the-way secondhand bookshops. Is there a first edition in your library that could be worth a huge sum one day?

I’m not sure it matters to me. I am tantalised by the idea of it all, and I enjoy the thrill of buying an old first edition and adding it to my library. But it’s really most valuable to me if I also enjoy reading it.

Do you have any valuable or collectable books in your library? I’d love to hear about them.

Here’s to a busy reading year!

5 responses to “Old books worth thousands – are yours?

  1. Oooh… you’re talking to an avid collector of books here. I have quite a few books which are worth a small fortune because they’re first editions, special editions and out of print.
    And the fun part is that I didn’t expect them to show up in my life! 😀

    I have ‘The Letter of JRR Tolkien’ editied by Humphery Carpenter… now everyone has this one; but not in the hard cover edition. I stumbled upon this one in Wales while I was on holidays, finding it in an old film room of a renovated movie theatre… and the only bookstore where the whole town pretty much lived at the store each day. This book is worth well over $2,000 – I’m not sure exactly how much as nobody can put a price on it. But I’ve introduced cotton gloves to it so my hands don’t damage it any more than it already is.

    Then, I found a 2nd edition of ‘Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemmingway. I scored this one for $14 in Mullumbimby’s Book Barn… sweet! It’s fully illustrated by 2 artists (as the publishers didn’t know who to go with, so took them both on)… anyway, I’ve read this book once and loved it! It’s worth its money too… won’t let anyone touch it.

    I also have ‘Mozart’ by Alfred Einstein… Albert Einstein’s cousin. It’s a first edition and talks about Mozart’s life and character. What a book! I hesitate to read it as it’s a little frail.
    And right next to it, I found ‘W.A. Mozart’ by Gutman… this is about his work and family, published in 1999 and in hard cover and is also a first edition! I bought both these books at The Book Barn in Mullumbimby… and I’m proud to say that I’m not letting them go either.

    However, I do have the works of a cover artist… Michael Whelan’s Works of Wonders. It’s in hard cover and it really is a magical book! I found this book in the most unlikely place – a charity store! I bought it for $4.00 and it’s worth so much more as it’s out of print.

    I do have more books that are like these books… and you can find them on my blog (through the link attached to my name below). I talk about my collection a lot there. Well, anyway, I hope these are enough books to get you looking and enjoying old books. 😀

  2. I have an original copy of the 1912 Dear Old Wales in very good condition. It is softback, but it is NOT a reprint of the original.

    back of title page reads “Copyright U.S.A., June, 1912
    By T Owen Charles Scranton, PA

    Copyright in Great Britain applied for

    On sale at the Druid Office, Scranton, PA
    Price, 50 cents

    Any information on its rarity and/or value is greatly appreciated.

  3. I got a book from like 1920 called alice in wonderland & throught the glass or something its 2 in one also got robin hood…tales of shakespear.. black beauty…the art of wooden decoys richard lemaster 1982 and signed by him 1984 i got art of korean china amd japan…i got over 100 books and over 100 magazines…even got brittanica enclyodpedia first volume 1776 1959 or 69

  4. I got a decoy book signed by Richard lemasters in 1984 it says to a Dorothy. on my book shelf then I got Alice in wonderland & through the looking Glass from 1920 on my shelf including Robin Hood and tales from Shakespeare..Final flight/the art of China Korea and Japan on my shelf/John browns body Stephen Vincent Benet/the new thinking with numbers 1956/tiny tots library/bartholdi and the statue of liberty/first hundred years/a promise to keep/1959 general electric book/audabon handbook about birds 1st edition/ski racing 1st edition Curtis casewit/situation skiing Jean Claude Kelly with mike Halstead and many many more

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