Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Rare And Valuable Books

( Orginally published 1962 )



Collectors and buyers of rare books often become so avid in their desire for books that there is even a special name for their "hobby": bibliomania, a name taken from the Greek, meaning book-madness.

Bibliomaniacs are willing to go to almost any length to find and purchase copies of books which they deem rare, and they do not stop at books of one particular nation or author.

There is one author, however, whose works they desire above all others. His name is known to every schoolboy in every school in almost every nation of the world: William Shakespeare.

The Pavier Quarto edition of the plays of Shakespeare is both rare and valuable. It is so rare that the copy of this edition which is in the F'olger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is probably the only one extant today-unless, of course, you can find another one.

To remember to watch for Shakespeare's plays is simple. But there are other missing works whose worth-or even how many of them are missing-is unknown. Like the works of Sir Walter Raleigh.

These are poems which were praised highly during his lifetime, yet most of his poetry was never even published and, today, a great many of his poems may have been lost to us forever-unless you can find them. Their value would, of course, depend on which ones they were and how eagerly the collectors would bid for them.

They could be anywhere! Books and manuscripts have been found in the strangest places-even in the Leningrad Archives, which announced recently that they had found manuscripts and letters by such famous authors as James Fenimore Cooper, Hans Christian Andersen and Sir Walter Scott.

The value of these manuscripts and letters would, naturally, depend upon what condition they were in, and condition means very much when placing a value on a book. One very good example of this would be the Pickwick Papers, by Dickens. There are two editions of this book, but their difference in value because of difference in condition makes one edition merely a "nice find" and the other a found treasure.

The edition of Pickwick Papers which is merely a nice find is the one which was a rebound issue of the original. This rebound volume (without wrappers) is worth only about $25 to $50. A nice find. But the other issue is the original, the one which was to be later rebound. The original edition was, of course, in different form. It was issued in separate parts in printed wrappers. And this issue-if you can find a copy of it-is worth between $25,000 and $50,000!

There are other authors' books which are also worth great sums of money. To the bibliomaniac the name of Edgar Allan Poe is a magic name. His work Tamerlane and Other Poems, the 1827 edition, is regarded as one of the rarest books in American literature. In the past a copy of it has brought $25,000, and today chances are that the value of another copy would be much higher since none has turned up in recent years.

These are tremendous prices for a book that is covered with a drab-color paper wrapper-yet anything by Poe has magic to it, not only to the treasure hunter but to aspiring writers as well. So efficacious was the name Poe to the public and to the literary critics of at least one generation that one aspiring writer published a poem which he claimed to have been written by Poe. He claimed the poem as a new find in literature-a poem which he said was found at an inn near Richmond, Virginia, written on the flyleaf of a copy of Ainsworth's Dictionary.

What a find such a poem would be to any treasure hunter! But in this case, it just was not so. The budding author had written it himself. He called the poem "Leonanie." He was only trying to prove, he said later, that if he wrote under a famous name, his poetry would receive recognition.

He did receive recognition during his lifetime-not because of the poem, however, but rather in spite of it, since the whole thing was nothing but a fraud.

The budding writer's name? James Whitcomb Riley.

Poe's is a magic name-not only to writers but to treasure hunters as well. There are today twelve extant copies of Poe's Tamerlane. Any way you look at it, this leaves a remainder of twenty-eight, since there were forty copies printed!

Twenty-eight missing copies of a book that is known to be a treasure of American literature! Dingy books hidden in someone's attic or someone's cellar-waiting for you to find them and turn them into gold.

Don't disregard any old-looking book. There are so many stories about the works of Edgar Allan Poe which only serve to point out the foolishness of not checking into the value of any old book you might have lying around.

There is the story of the old lady who used a first edition of Poe to prop up the leg of an old dresser in the cellar of her home. And there is the story of the first edition of Poe's works which was given away to a junk dealer-because the person who had it did not know what he had.

If you have any old book, it is usually possible to check its edition, title and author against lists of rare books which most librarians can give you. One thing to watch for, of course, is any first edition by any author whose name is familiar to you. If the author has become famous since his first book was published and the issue date was years ago, it is more than probable that the book is worth something.

Any old book is worth checking. Your librarian will help you. Your local book dealer will help you. From Shakespeare to Poe, if it is a first edition, chances are that you have made a find in the field of bibliomania, the book madness which seems to strike the book collectors at the sight of a rare book which they decide they must have-and would seemingly pay any price for.

In the city of London, an auctioneer went through what he thought was just another pile of books. They had been dumped into an old basket and the job was pretty monotonous. The hope of ever really finding a treasure seemed remote. Usually, the stuff found was just junk.

Suddenly his eyes lighted up. For this time the basket was not filled with junk. This time he had come upon a basket of gold-for in the basket was a prayer book, a very old and rare prayer book.

Nervously, he picked it up. It was Flemish-and over five hundred years old. So rare, and so valuable that when it was finally put up for sale, it went for the fabulous sum of $89,000!

This sale almost set a record in the history of book sales. Yet at least one other book brought in a higher price at auction, a price which reached the incredible sum of $150,000.

This sum was paid for a copy of the Bay Psalm Book at a sale in the Parke Bernet Auction Galleries in New York. It was one of the highest prices ever received at auction for a printed book-and it is the price you might receive if you could find another copy of the Bay Psalm Book.

It was the first book to be printed in the American colonies. Printed in 1640, it was the work of Stephen Daye, but such men as Richard Mather, Thomas Wilde and John Eliot all worked together on it. They, in their efforts to print a psalm book, produced not only a religious book-they produced one of the rarest lost treasures in the field of bibliomania. A copy of this book is a treasure well worth searching for, one you might receive $151,000 for-if you can find it.

Yet even this fabled price is not the most a book can be worth. There are missing copies of another religious book which are worth approximately a third of a million dollars apiece if you can find one of them. And strangely enough, this is a lost treasure that most everyone believes does not exist.

Because the book is so well known, it is felt that if there were any of them still around, they would have been found long ago. But this is not true. There were approximately two hundred copies of this book printed-yet there are only forty-six copies that have been found! The question is: what happened to the other one hundred and fifty-four copies?

One hundred and fifty-four copies of a book simply do not disappear. Some of them, of course, will be damaged or destroyed but not all one hundred and fifty-four.

Where are they-these one hundred and fifty-four copies of the fabled, the fabulous, the magnificent Gictenberg Bible? Frederick R. GofE, Chief, Rare Book Division, Library of Congress, has chosen the Gutenberg Bible as one of the most valuable books in the world. It was the first printed book in Europe, having been printed in the early fifteenth century at Mainz, Germany. Rare and valuable, this is, surely, a treasure hunter's dream. There are only three perfect copies of the great Gutenberg Bible known to be in existenceand the Library of Congress has one of these. You might have another copy and not even know it. Look again at that old bible in the attic. It just might be worth a third of a million dollars!

Value of a Gutenberg Bible, of course, would depend upon its condition. This is true of any rare book. Yet a copy of this great Bible could be worth a third of a million, if it were in the same fine condition as the copy in the Library of Congress which was purchased from Dr. Otto Vollbehr, who originally paid approximately a third of a million for it. Today the Library considers this copy as being "almost priceless."

Remember, of course, that the price of a rare book goes up and up as time goes by. The value of the Gutenberg Bible has gone up from $25,000 to $50,000, to $106,000, to $120,000, to a third of a million dollars-and the price is still going up.

Any book printed by Gutenberg is of value today if it is in fine condition. But Gutenberg in his lifetime did not always do so well. He failed, just at the time when printing was getting started. He had borrowed money from the money lender Johann Fust, and, when Gutenberg failed, Fust stepped in and took his equipment to make up for the mortgage which Gutenberg could not pay off.

The main item Fust took, in terms of bibliophilic history, was the printing press. But he did not let the printing press lie idle. With his son-in-law Peter Schoffer he continued to print, and one of the books which Fust and Schoffer printed was the Psalter o f 1457, a book which, in value, stands second only to Gutenberg's Bible.

No copy of the Psalter of 1457 is owned by any American library. It is this rare. Technically a book of psalms, it contains three hundred and fifty pages. The initials in the book are printed in red and blue. It was the first printed book which had a complete date in it. It was also the first printed book to have a colophon (the printer's name and the place at which the book was printed).

It is a rarity well worth your time and trouble. Remember, the last quoted price for the great Gutenberg Bible was a third of a million dollars-and the Psalter o f 1457 stands second to it. Remember this the next time you run across an old book of psalms! It just might be the right edition!

Sometimes, of course, it is much harder to put a price on a missing book, but often the history behind the book makes even the very printing of it an extraordinary thing-as the book printed in America at the direct order of a man who called himself a king.

Though there is no king in the United States, not so long ago a man ruled his subjects by his own laws and called himself by that forbidden title. King of his people and of his territory, he ruled with an iron hand and even coined his own money.

His own people murdered him. They were the Strangites, a branch of the Mormons, and their king was James Jesse Strang, or "King James," according to the way he told it. He claimed to be Joseph Smith's successor, yet originally he had been driven away from the main body of the Mormons because he had disagreed with Brigham Young. He fled to Big Beaver Island in the northern part of Lake Michigan in Charlevoix County in 1847 and settled there with those of his followers who still believed in him. Those who went with him followed his leadership implicitly-until he introduced polygamy in 1849.

This fomented trouble and in 1856 Strang's monarchical bubble burst and he was murdered. The little colony became, then, a thing of the past. Today the most important reminder of their subjugation to their king is a book, The Book the Law of the Lord.

It was printed at St. James, the town set up on Big Beaver Island, which King James named after himself. He ordered the printing of this book, which laid down the rules which he stipulated for his people.

Today there are only two copies of this book known to be extant. One is in the Huntington Library. The other is with the firm of Eberstadt in New York.

One possible reason why only two copies are in existence is that, when Strang was murdered, his "kingdom" was ravaged, and probably many copies of the book were destroyed. Yet there is always the chance that there are other copies in existence today-waiting for you to find them.

The value of a copy of this book depends on what the collector will pay and how badly he wants it. Any old book is worth investigating-and if you are lucky enough you might find anything from the The Book the Law of the Lord to another copy of the great Gutenberg Bible.

When the bibliomaniacs reach out their hands for rare books, there is no limit to the country, the language or the contents of the work which they desire to own.

Among the many items which they desire is a pamphlet with the long title of the Short Ravelings From a Long Yarn, Or Tales O f The Santa Fe Trail, published in 1847. The value of this pamphlet has been quoted at up to one thousand dollars, and today there are only four copies of it known to exist. However, there might be another one stuck away in your bookcase or in that old box of junk you have been meaning to throw away-if you take the time and trouble to look through it.

Another book collectors would gladly buy from you is the History o f New York by Washington Irving. Supposedly written by an eccentric Dutchman, Diedrich Knickerbocker, the book is considered to be a masterpiece of satire. Published in 1809, it is referred to as "Knickerbocker's History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty." It is a collector's item, a book for which they will pay you varying prices depending upon the condition of the copy which, if you are lucky enough, you will find.

A copy in poor condition might bring you $50. A better copy might bring you $125. An even better copy might fetch $150. But an unbattered copy, in the same fine condition as when it left the hands of the printer, could bring you $1,000 if you are lucky enough to find one.

Any old book in fine condition is worth being evaluated by an expert. Even schoolbooks have been known to have value. In early America there were generations of children who learned their ABC's by reciting "In Adam's Fall, We Sinned All;" B's were "The Life to Mend, This Book Attend," and facetious C was learned as "The Cat doth Play and after slay."

These, together with the remainder of the alphabet, illustrated by crude wood-cuts, comprised a portion of the first important textbook in America. In opposition to the hornbook, which it supplanted, the New England Primer possessed leaves and binding. It contained, besides the alphabet, the Ten Commandments, religious verses, spelling words, and the catechism.

Although the original author of this book is unknown, it was compiled by Benjamin Harris, a Boston printer. It was an abridgment of an earlier work, The Protestant Tutor, and as an educational force it was tremendously influential in the lives of many generations of young Americans. There were at least forty editions of the New England Primer, the first printed in 1690, yet there are only a very few extant today-and hardly any of the first edition.

For over a hundred years the children of America studied from this book, yet so very few have survived. One of these, the "Bradford Fragment," was located in the binding of a later book.

Out of forty editions, surely somebody's attic bookcase holds a copy. Even a badly mutilated copy could have some value. In 1926 one very bad copy, dated 1768, sold for $150. With luck the treasure hunter might locate a copy dated in the 1690's-and it might even be in good condition. It might, even today, be hidden away in your cellar, your attic, or anywhere, if you just take the time and trouble to check.

One individual apparently forgot this prime rule of treasure hunting, because he did not check. And because he did not check he gave away a book that was worth $250. Certainly too valuable a work to give away! The book, a first-edition pamphlet of A Boy's Will, by Robert Frost, was discovered by librarians at Marquette University as they searched through a box of books which had been donated to the school.

Probably no one will ever know how many rare books have been destroyed or thrown away because the owners did not know what they had. Even the bindings on a book can have value-but do not tear away the bindings in your attempt to sell them. Leave them intact, for only in fine condition do they have value. Watch for the bindings of Zaehnsdorf, Hayday, Charles Lewis, Derome, Riviere, Roger Payne, Padeloup, Bedford and Bozerian.

Bindings, books, or manuscripts-there are works from every nation and every century worth watching for. There are works upon which no value can be placed until they are found. The treasure hunter must first locate them and then present them for sale, hoping for a high bid from the collectors. However, the first thing is to find them.

Sometimes, of course, it is even a problem as to whether or not a work is actually missing-like the original of The Kings o f Britain. The Historia de Gestis Regum Brittanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) contained a supposed genealogy of the kings of Britain and was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. Yet when Geoffrey wrote this history he claimed that he was writing only a translation of an earlier work. It is this earlier work about which is raised the question of whether or not it ever existed. The authorities doubt that it ever existed at all-but what a find for the treasure hunter if it could be located!

There is, however, one work in connection with The Kings o f Britain which we know is missing. This is a portion of a rhymed French translation of the work, by Geoffrey Gaimar. Today, only approximately a third of this rhymed translation is extant. The other two thirds of the work are lost-waiting for the treasure hunter.

In watching for lost works of the past, the name of the Venerable Bede must not be forgotten, for he was an ardent and prolific writer. He, allegedly, wrote more than forty pieces, and in the year 735, as he lay dying, he was still writing. He was, with his last breath, still pouring out new works, and one of these, a translation of the Gospel of St. John, is now lost.

The man to whom Bede dictated this work, which even the fear of death could not stop, was the man we know as Saint Cuthbert. According to Cuthbert, Bede loved Anglo-Saxon poetry, but whatever Bede may have written in this style there are only two lines we definitely know to have been his-and these are from a poem quoted by Cuthbert.

We know, however, that one of Bede's works, the translation of the New Testament, did exist in manuscript form. Today this translation has disappeared.

There is also another work, a handbook by King Alfred, which did exist as a manuscript but which today is missing. This, too, has disappeared from the world of literature-unless you can find it.

Many early manuscripts are still missing, including early French lais of the pre-twelfth-century period. From the late eleven hundreds there is one which should especially be watched for. It is from the pen of Robert de Boron, one of the more prominent writers of that century.

It was toward the end of this period that he wrote three different manuscripts: Merlin; Joseph; and Perceval. A part of the Merlin has been preserved; all of Joseph has been preserved; but Perceval is missing-unless you can find it.

Books, bindings, and manuscripts, they are worth their weight in gold-if you can find the right ones.