Shelf of old rare books

Article

Is my rare book worth a lot of money?

How to tell if there's a fortune on your bookshelf

A book is the age-old remedy to a long train journey. And in the digital age, armed with your Kindle, you can bring as many books as you like. The UK’s five biggest publishers sold a reported 47.9m eBooks in 2015 alone, raising continued questions on the future of their paper ancestors.

However, coinciding with the demise of the modern book, rare copies of successful classics are becoming even more popular, and demanding a fortune at auction.

If you find a rare book at home that you think might be worth something, here’s what to look out for:

Rarity

The older and rarer a book is, the more valuable it should be.

First editions of successful titles, in other words the very first copies of the book made available, are considered the Holy Grail. Second editions may command value too, but only if the first edition is extremely rare.

First editions are growing in popularity as an investment; last year, a Rare Book Index was launched to track the value of 30 first edition 20th Century popular classics, including the Great Gatsby and Animal Farm.

Good timing

The right timing can add even more value to rare copies. This year, on the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, a copy of his First Folio was found in a stately home in Scotland. Only about 230 copies are known to exist – to give an idea of its value, a copy owned by Oxford University sold for £3.5m in 2003.

The book doesn’t necessarily have to be 400 years old to have value at auction. First-edition copies from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, first released in 1997, can be found on online bookseller AbeBooks for prices ranging from £200 to over £50,000.

Markings from the author

Copies that have notes or a signature from the author will also be more sought after. In August 2014, AbeBooks sold a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ for £10,918 – as well as being a first edition, it was inscribed by Hemingway himself, to a friend.

A dust jacket

Rare book collectors Between the Covers say that for modern first editions after 1920, a dust jacket might constitute as much as 80-90% of the total value of a particular book – even more for rare jackets on books published before 1920. 

Here are some other considerations that you should keep in mind:

Common misconceptions

For the untrained (and perhaps eager) eye, it can be easy to wrongly assess an old book as rare or valuable.

It is often presumed that misprints make them more valuable, says Laura Massey of rare book firm Peter Harrington. "These alone will not increase the value of an otherwise inexpensive book,” she says. “For a small number of very important books, misprints can have an impact on value, but in most cases they don’t make a difference.”

Selling up

When it comes to selling, rare books have the advantage of not attracting VAT. They normally won’t be liable for Capital Gains Tax if they are valued at less than £6,000. 

It’s important that you get your books valued by an expert, so you know what you can expect when selling. And given the obvious fragility of a book collection, it’s vital to make sure your items are covered with adequate insurance.