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Is My Inherited Book Collection Worth Anything?

By Audrey Golden. Feb 4, 2021. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Collecting

So you say you recently inherited a book collection from your grandparent, your parent, a distant family member, a neighbor, or a family friend? If you’re not familiar with the rare book trade and you don’t have too much experience buying or selling rare books, you might feel lost among the boxes or shelves. Most likely, you’re wondering if this inherited book collection is worth anything. Many rare booksellers and archivists have tales about being approached with old books that the owners believe to be valuable solely based on age or incorrect assumptions about the book’s provenance. Of course, terms like “worth” and “value” are always relative, and we’ll say more about that in just a few minutes. But before we do, we want to tackle the complicated question of whether an inherited book collection has any market value and what that means for your inheritance.

The Jungle BookOld Books Are Not Necessarily Rare or Monetarily Valuable

First, it’s important to know up front that an old book is not necessarily rare, and it does not necessarily have market value. In other words, just because a book is old does not mean that you can sell it for a significant amount of money, or that anyone will be willing to pay a substantial sum (or any sum, in some cases!) for the book. These kinds of assumptions are especially common when someone finds or inherits a family Bible, or when a person inherits a collection of nineteenth-century or early twentieth century books that show their age. Allow us to repeat again—and say it with us!—that an old book is not necessarily a rare book or an expensive book.

Many older books are extremely common, which means that they are not of too much interest to a rare bookseller or to a rare book archive or special collections library. Even if the book is not particularly common, it might not be in demand by anyone other than its previous owner (e.g., the family Bible), or it might have significant damage that takes away from its value. Let’s address that last point in a bit more detail. Many older hardcover or hardback books were issued with dust jackets, and the dust jackets are often where much of the market value lies. As such, if the book is missing its dust jacket, its value could plummet. Similar, if the spine is severely damaged, or there’s significant evidence of water damage or fading, the book will likely be valued based on its condition.

26876Someone Famous Owned or Touched the Book, I Swear!

While many old books like we discussed above do not often have much value to a rare bookseller, a rare book collector, or an archive, all of that could change if someone of prominence owned the book. So, did you inherit this collection of old books from a relative who also happens to be a Hollywood movie star or a notorious politician? If that’s the case, then that box of old books could be of great market value even if the books on their own, without knowledge of the previous owner, would not be worth much money. Yet keep in mind that you will likely need to show an interested buyer evidence of the provenance of the collection. For example, if Cary Grant was your great-great uncle and he owned this box of books, do you have any photographs of his library with the books on the shelves? Or do you have a letter gifting the books to you? Or a copy of the will?

Similarly, even if the previous owner of this inherited book collection was not a person of notoriety, one or more books in the collection could still have market value if they’ve been signed or inscribed by the author. Of course, you’ll also need more information about the provenance of the book or books, and you may need to consult a rare book expert to determine the legitimacy of a signature or inscription.

Market Value of a Book is Different from Other Types of Value

You might think we’re being naysayers and suggesting that you just inherited a book collection that isn’t worth anything. While this is often true of inherited family libraries, keep in mind that there are many old books that are indeed very rare and very valuable! Accordingly, if you believe you might have an especially rare book, it’s certainly worth seeking out an appraisal. Just don’t be disappointed if you find out the collection isn’t exactly the nest egg you were hoping for.

We also just want to say, for the record, that the market value of a book is different from other types of value you might ascribe to a book or another object. A book that’s of little to no market value to one person could be extremely valuable to another person who has a deep connection to that book. For instance, maybe you inherited a book that your father read and annotated, making it nearly priceless to you. Or perhaps you inherited a book that’s uncommon but not especially sought after, and it turns out you find a buyer who has been seeking precisely that book for decades.

You never know what you have until you do a little bit more research and consider the sentimental value that can, quite fairly, be attached to books and other inherited objects.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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