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The Book Business: What Is Valuable?

I watched the appraiser pick up a book in good condition, hold it up for us to see. First edition, published in 1912 and a first-person account of the sinking of the Titanic. Wow, I thought. That’s got to be worth something. The appraiser turned to his colleague and said, “You want to take this or shall I?” Uh oh, maybe not. They’d already appraised three similar books that morning. First person accounts of the sinking of the Titanic are as common as carrots, it seems, with publishers and victims seeing a potential gold mine in timely first-person accounts. These books are not worth very much.

I’m a regular watcher of Antiques Roadshow, and I know that condition is a prime value. So when a friend brought me a three-inch thick tome called Romance and Tragedy of Pioneer Life, published in 1883 and containing many fine engravings, I was inclined to be impressed. Unfortunately, the spine cover and first few pages, including the preface, were missing.

What would such a volume be worth in its condition? I looked online and discovered that similar books in better condition were priced at $50 to $90 by one antiquarian bookseller and elsewhere. I also found reprints of this book, called a classic, facsimile copies, and e-book versions. The book seemed to be all over the net, and its worth was not going to pay my mortgage.

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