The rarity and value of a book are determined by certain criteria, which often times has nothing to do with the actual literary merit of the work. Some books may be prized because only a limited number of copies were printed, or because they were printed with hand-set type on hand-made paper, or perhaps costly reproduction processes and binding materials were used. Or, maybe only one copy has survived through the ages and is in immaculate condition. Factors like these can lead to a situation where supply is greater than demand, thus increasing the collectability and rarity of any item. There are typically five categories of rare books sought after by collectors.
In many cases, first editions are the most desirable of rare books. For a first edition to be of collector’s value it must be written by a well-known author. Especially sought after are the books published between the mid fifteenth to the late seventeenth century. This time period marks the earlier phases of the printing industry in which copies were produced in relatively small quantities. With so many years past and so little copies to begin with it is easy to see why many first editions are such rare books.
Illuminated manuscripts are extremely rare books, and in many cases, extremely valuable. This category of books consists of works that were hand-written and bound before the invention of printing. Hundreds of hours of meticulous craftsmanship were put into the creation of just one copy. These elaborate manuscripts were considered works of art, and usually richly embellished with brilliant illustrations and decorative first letters. These rare books are of both artistic and historical value thus making them prized show-case pieces for many collectors.
Books with Defects
In some instances, publishers mistakenly issue a small edition of a book with defects in the printing or binding, such as a defective cover, a missing title page, or a significant typing error. The more unfortunate, or even humorous, an error it is, the better. Typically, for a rare book with defects to be of real value, it must also possess some other special quality such as being a well-known book or a first edition.
In this category of books, commonplace works can gain a status of value and rarity simply because someone of stature wrote in them. It could the authors autograph in the beginning of the book, or notes scribbled in the margins by a famous owner. The degree of rarity depends on how many similar copies are in existence. If thousands of the books were signed by the author as a part of mass publicity, then it is probably not a very valuable book.
Now that you know what it takes to spot a rare book, how about going out and seeing what special treasures are waiting for you.
C.J Williams is a free-lance blog writer and literature enthusiast, with a passion for collecting antique, ornamental, and rare books.