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October 20, 2020

Do you have a rare book in your inventory?

Recently, a homeowner in Richmond decided to start clearing out the over 1000 books she had accumulated in her home after 50 years in place. She felt that some of the books may be valuable, so she decided to find out the best steps for determining a book’s worth first through online research. By following the guidelines below, she found she had some real treasures in her collection; so much so that by donating them to the Library of Virginia, she was able to offset her taxes by over 50%.

Do you have a treasure waiting to be discovered in your bookshelves? Here’s how you can find out.

Male hand pulling book out of bookshelves

Go Online First

According to, the easiest way to know the value of your book is by comparing it to others on the open market. Etsy, eBay, Google Shopping,, and BookGilt are great online tools for identifying book value.

There are a few things to consider in making your assessment:

  1. Condition is critical. If your book is missing a dust cover, has torn pages, or water stains, it will lower the value considerably. Collectors want books in good to very good condition.
  2. What edition do you have? This is where it can get tricky. Even books that say “First Edition” may not be. A Reader’s Digest printing of a book can be the first edition of its type, but it is not a true first printing of the book by the publisher. You can’t count on the year either as a book may be reprinted several times in the same year depending on sales. Instead, look for a “number line” on the copyright page. The lowest number in the sequence of numbers indicates the printing. For example, a number line may read as follows:10 9 8 7 6 5 4. This shows that this book was the 4th printing as the lowest number is 4. The numbers may not be in a sequential order either, such as 1 3 5 7 10 8 6 4. This number would indicate a first edition as the lowest number in the sequence is a 1. Sometimes you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find it. Not all publishers use this system, but it is the most common.
  3. Book Club Editions. As noted above, many popular books were reprinted under different organization names like Reader’s Digest Condensed Books or Heritage Press Books. These are printed using cheaper materials than the original publishing house and not comparable or as collectible. You can identify a book club edition by comparing size (typically smaller), paper stock (lighter weight), dust jacket weight, or checking the copyright page to see if the club name is listed. A few book club publishers are more respected, such as Easton Press, Franklin Library, and The Limited Editions Club. Because some first edition publisher printed books are hard, book club edition books, such as Gone With The Wind or The Catcher In The Rye, are still valuable to collectors.
  4. Supply and Demand. A book that wasn’t all that popular in the early 1800s may have great value today because fewer were saved or preserved. Books that had limited printing can also become collectible. An example is Lynchburg: An Architectural History with photography by Richard Cheek. Cheek went on to become a well-known photographer, and this book was not printed in large quantities or reprinted. Originally sold for under $60, today you can find it for as little as $160.00 and as much as $400.
  5. Range of prices. As you can see with the Cheek book, the price range can vary from seller to seller. If you are doing an inventory for insurance purposes, make sure you match the condition, edition, and publisher information and make a fair estimate based on the average cost.

Hire an appraiser

The first thing to bear in mind with legitimate book appraisers is that they cannot offer to purchase any item they appraise. This is an ethical standard, not a legal requirement, but one that should be followed.

An appraised value is usually the average market price for a comparable book that is currently on the market. The same book conditions listed above apply.

Market price is not necessarily what you can expect to get for your book, depending on how quickly you want to sell it. Many books can stay on the market for years waiting for the right collector. If you are looking to make a quick sale, you can expect to get less. Professional booksellers, to whom you would likely be selling your book, will not pay market value as they need to realize a profit on the transaction.

You will want to hire an appraiser if you cannot find sufficient comparable books online. For example, our Virginia book collector above had a series of foreign fairy tales from around the world that were very hard to find online. She hired an appraiser who specialized in the genre and was able to give her fair values on each volume.

Donating your books

If you have valuable books you wish to donate, here are some things to consider.

  1. Your donation value will depend on how the charity to which you give them plans to use the books. For example, if you donate them to a Library or historical institution that plans to put it on display, you will be able to declare their fair market value. If you donate the books to a school or charity that intends to sell it to raise money, you can only deduct the amount for which the book sold.
  2. For tax purposes, you will need to give up your standard deduction and complete a Schedule A. The organization to which you donated the books will have provided you with a receipt outlining the date, description, and whether or not you received anything in return for the gift. It is always best to consult with your accountant first to ensure you are making the best decisions.

How to store and preserve booksClose-up two young mice on the old books on the shelf in the library

If you find you have some valuable books in your collection but do not want to sell or donate them, it is important to follow these steps:

  1. Make an inventory of your books. Take pictures or the outside and copyright page and record their estimated value. Contact your home insurance provider and make sure you have adequate coverage. You may need an umbrella policy if you don’t already have one, or you may need a fine arts rider added.
  2. You’ll need to protect your books from mildew, direct sunlight, insects, rodents, and dust.
  3. Clean your books by dusting them thoroughly with a soft paintbrush without damaging the jacket, cover, or pages. Check the pages for any dust and dirt as well.
  4. Wrap each book with cloth or paper towels to help prevent dust accumulation. Do not wrap books in plastic or foil as this will trap moisture and promote mold or mildew growth. Acid-free paper can also be used, but not newsprint.
  5. Store your books in strong, clean cardboard boxes. Again, no plastic. In addition to promoting mold and mildew growth due to trapping moisture, plastic boxes do not protect the books from UV rays.
  6. Make sure books are stored lying flat so no pressure is put on the book spine.
  7. Place heavier books on the bottom so it limits compression.
  8. Do not store books in the attic or basement. A climate-controlled storage unit or a closet in your home is best.
  9. If you prefer to keep your books on display on a shelf, try to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the books, dust frequently, and consider turning the books on their sides or upside down from time to time so the books don’t warp or become misshapen.
  10. Go for a high-end designer look and make protective book jackets out of acid-free paper in colors that match your decor. Or, you can wrap your books like a present in color-coordinated papers and not have to dust them while you display them.

Make sure your books are included in your home inventory. Should a disaster happen, replacing some well-loved and often read volumes to refill your bookcase may be more expensive than you thought if a rare find was in your collection.

What is your favorite book in your library? Do you think you have any valuable first editions?