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Deciphering “RARE” in relation to Antiquarian books

images of rare books from Whitmore-Library

What makes a book go under the category of RARE?  Are there any set guidelines? 

In short, the answer is no. There are standard guidelines for categorizing books as RARE for antiquarian books.  When a book is described as ‘RARE’, it is more often than not done so at the discretion of the individual describing a particular book. This can be a person selling their book who may or may not have done diligent data collecting or it may be someone with more experience who will know the printing history of the book. If it is the later then it would have a better chance of being given this categorization accurately. The following excerpt is taken from one of the better write-ups that was recently posted online about the concept of RARITY in relation to Antiquarian and Collectible books:

Rarity still matters. There are only 400 extant copies of the 1896 Kelmscott Chaucer; one is available on AbeBooks for $137,500. Even particularly special reproductions of this book are listed for thousands of dollars. If there were 10,000 copies of this book, it would necessarily be cheaper.

On the other end of the spectrum, a popular magazine usually won’t gain much value: the market is flooded. National Geographic has a print run of 12 million, so there’s always someone looking to get rid of their copies. (That’s why my local library used to sell decades-old copies for 5 cents a pop.) But, says Dr. Belanger, even household names can become rare: “My aunt Agnes collected an entire run of Life magazine, and everybody laughed at her. But the complete set is now worth well into five figures.”

first edition of the Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (worth $194,000)

Rarity also applies to the specific edition or even the specific printing. There are millions of copies of The Fellowship of the Ring; you can buy a used copy for five bucks on Amazon, less at many used bookstores. And that’s why the earlier editions are worth more. And one edition of a book can have multiple printings, and that each of these printings may fix small errors or make other tiny changes that set them apart. None of these details would make those early copies valuable, if Fellowship weren’t also highly regarded and widely read.

The first printings of the start of a famous series are usually more valuable than those of the last, because they’re usually rarer. By the time they released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the series, the publishers knew they’d sell millions of copies. So they ordered a much bigger first printing than they had on The Philosopher’s Stone. Copies of that first printing will be easy to find for a long, long time—especially since so many readers will keep them in excellent condition.

The write up goes on to explain that “desirability” should also always be considered:

“The word rare is a misnomer,” says Dr. Belanger. Plenty of rare books are cheap or even worthless. (Think of a cheap, forgettable novel that only ever sold a thousand copies. Even if you have the last remaining copy, that doesn’t mean anyone wants it.)

first edition of harry potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (worth $55,000)!

Conversely, says Dr. Belanger, “a desirable book is a ‘rare book’ even if it’s not rare.” Certain books are valuable just for their cultural significance, just like other ephemera such as original Woodstock tickets, or the first appearance of Superman, or one of Apple’s first computer manuals. Of course, these artifacts are also relatively rare, because they were intended to be thrown away after a few years or months or days. A high demand only increases value if combined with a low supply.

Tastes and trends play roles as well, however. (When a movie adaption is released whether Pride and prejudice or Nancy Drew, First edition of the book often become temporary Hot property among collectors).

I recently read a novel, “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much”, (to be honest I listened to the 5 part CD audio version I took out from the library in my car between driving my kids around to everything)the author, Allison Hoover Bartlett,  has an interview with many book dealers and the topic of rarity came up.  She writes in the first chapter:

Before the [Antiquarian book] fair, I had learned that there are probably as many definitions of rare as there are book dealers.  Most tend towards the cheeky.  She goes on to write some of these responses she was given when she questioned the seasoned dealers about the concept of “rarity” in labeling Antiquarian and Collectible books;

– “[It is] a book that is worth more now than it was published”.  

 – “A rare book is a book I want badly and I can’t find”.  

– “Apparently it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that scholars attempted to define what makes a book rare”.

She described that on the occasions that people answer seriously, they all agree that rare is highly subjective.

One dealer explained to her that it can be difficult to identify first editions, [particularly in children’s books] (and in books prior to 1900) in part because the edition is not always noted.  That “sometimes you have to look for clues”, and that it is these clues which will lead you to know whether or not the book at hand is rare.     

Allison wraps up her discussion of Rarity in relation to collecting books by bringing up “bibliophile”  J. E. Burger, who she spoke to on the subject.  She says that he makes “Monty-Pythonest” distinctions between Rarest, Rarior,  Raresiomos”. 

A books degree of rarity remains subjective.  And the only qualities of rare that collectors and dealers seem to agree on is some combination of scarcity, importance and condition. 

And just to see if your ‘sitting on a gold mine and didn’t know it’, this is a fun quick read:


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