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Information guide for finding rare & valuable books online

What makes a book rare and valuable?

valuable and rare books

Throw sentimentality out of the window

One key thing to remember when it comes to spotting a rare book is that sentimentality should be the first thing out of the window. Often, as book lovers we tend to confuse sentimental value with monetary value. Sure, that battered childhood version of “Alice in Wonderland” may have belonged to your Grandmother. You may have tucked it beneath your pillow every night. The pages may have yellowed to look the part, but that doesn’t mean it’s a rare or a valuable book.

A rare or valuable book is not simply an old book, it’s not a now out of print book and it’s not a book that has simply been passed down because of its sentimental value. This is why searching for rare books can be similar to seeking out the Holy Grail or finding the magic lamp in Aladdin’s cave. 

A true rare book can be like finding a needle in a haystack but once you have it in your hand, it makes the search worthwhile. The first step to finding rare books is to understand exactly what makes a book rare and/or valuable:

You need demand for value

A book can be rare but not valuable

A book that nobody wants or nobody is willing to pay for, is not a valuable book, even though it could still be considered a rare book.

Ever since the printed word went into press, millions of books have been produced and many ended up on the slush pile. Many authors have created works that are now out of print and just because you have stumbled across a copy may make it rare but doesn’t make it valuable. 

In fact an author’s popularity often affects whether the book is considered rare or a collectible. Great American authors like Ernest Hemingway are highly collectable and if you have a limited edition copy of an early Hemingway novel then this could be an example of both a rare and valuable book. Remember that demand is the first step in discovering if the book is considered valuable.

valuable books


How scare a book is will also determine how rare a book is. You may have a book that is scarcely found to be in such good condition or is scarcely found with a hardback jacket.

Other examples would be books that may have been banned at a certain time because the book was considered to be provocative or controversial at the time that it was published.

How commonly available a certain kind of book is will have some bearing on how rare the book is and will also add to its value.

Special Features of a Valuable Book

Regardless of the books age, a rare book can be found on the shelves of modern classics. A book can be considered rare if it holds some special features that sets it aside from its printed brothers and sisters.

For example maybe this book is a first print edition, or a limited print edition. Maybe it has a different dust jacket or it has additional features inside. 

All these things can add to a books demand. It is worth noting however, that just because the author has happened to scrawl their name on the book, doesn’t always mean the books value has been boosted. This will depend on how popular the author is/was and how many books they signed (that scarcity element again)

What Special Features can make a rare book more valuable?

Certain distinct qualities can significantly enhance the value of a rare book. These unique attributes are often sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. The key thing to note with all of these, is that the attribute alone will not make the book valuable. Generally speaking it is the scarcity of that attribute on a particular book that really counts:

Original/First Editions: First Editions of significant work are famous for getting people excited. First editions are highly valued as they represent the original publication, and represent the historical starting point of a publication. They are often also produced in limited quantities:

Limited Production: Books that have a limited print run can possess considerable value. Furthermore, Limited editions may include special elements like numbered or signed copies, exclusive illustrations, or unique bindings:

Author Signatures and Inscriptions: Collectors can sometimes get excited by author signatures, particularly if accompanied by a personalised inscription. Collectors place great importance on signatures from well-known or influential authors. 

Illustrations and Artwork: Books featuring exceptional illustrations or artwork can be highly sought-after. Original artwork, hand-coloured illustrations, or illustrations created by renowned artists can substantially enhance the visual appeal and collectability of a book.

Fine Bindings: Books with intricate and meticulously crafted bindings can be of great value. Fine bindings often utilise top-quality materials, such as leather or decorative cloth, and showcase elaborate designs, gilding, or embossing.

Association Copies: An association copy refers to a book that has a personal connection to an important person, such as being gifted, inscribed, or annotated by the author for a specific individual. Books associated with notable individuals, such as other authors, historical figures, or renowned personalities, can hold significant worth. 

Unusual or Unique Features: Books with distinctive or uncommon characteristics can command higher value. This may include elements like fold-out maps, tipped-in plates, concealed compartments, or unconventional bindings. Books with printing errors, misprints, or alternative versions can also pique collectors’ interest. 

Historical Documentation: Books accompanied by additional historical documents, such as letters, manuscripts, or related ephemera, can contribute to their value. These items provide further context and enhance the historical significance of the book.

condition rare book

Condition of a Rare Book

Aside from being in demand and having a rare special feature, a book that is in better physical condition (for its age) is, generally, going to be worth more.

Often it is a case of making a relative comparison with the same book, of the same age and the same/similar features. I.e. is the book in condition relative to similar books in the marketplace?

A collector may be interested in gauging how close a book copy is to the original copy. Pages need to be checked carefully to see if they are all there or whether any are torn. And the spine will need to be inspected to see if it is cracked, faded or damaged or if the book has been rebound. Rebound books will lose a large chunk of their rarity and it will reduce their value. 

How can you check the condition of a rare book when buying online?

There are several steps you can take to gather information and evaluate the condition of a book when buying online:

Condition Grading Standards: Familiarise yourself with condition grading standards used by reputable book sellers, such as the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) condition definitions or the AB Bookman’s grading system.  Acquainting yourself with these standards helps evaluate condition effectively. The marketplaces that we include in our search are made up of individual book sellers, and some of these book sellers will be members of organisations such as the ILAB. Additionally, marketplaces such as Alibris, have details of their own book condition system:

More Detailed Condition Descriptions: Look for listings that provide in-depth details about the book’s condition, and scrutinise what it says. Trustworthy sellers offer comprehensive descriptions and go beyond terms like “good,” “fine,” “mint,” or “very good,” – they will include specific details of why a book is in “good” condition. 

High-Quality Images: Zoom in on clear, high-resolution images provided by the seller. Examine different angles, including the cover, spine, pages, and any notable flaws or features. A close examination of images aids in assessing condition remotely. And don’t ever be afraid to ask for more images from the the seller. 

Ask Lots of Questions: Don’t hesitate to contact the seller and ask specific queries about the condition. Seek information about any wear, damage, or restoration. Responsive sellers who willingly provide additional images instil confidence.

Seller Feedback & Reviews: Amazon, Ebay and Alibris include customer reviews from previous purchases from book sellers. Established sellers with a solid track record tend to be less of a risk. 

Return Policy and Guarantees: Verify if the seller offers a return policy or guarantees the accuracy of the condition description. Such policies provide recourse if the received book’s condition does not match the description.

Professional Appraisal: For highly valuable or expensive rare books, consider obtaining a professional appraisal. Appraisers possess the expertise to accurately evaluate condition and provide an unbiased assessment of the book’s value.

A summary of the golden ticket to a valuable book

Highest valued books to date

Below you will find the books that have sold for the highest prices. This will put the above text on ‘what makes a book valuable’ into more context, as you will be able to spot the factors that make these books so prized.
valuable books the Codex Leicester

Highest valued historical books

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (the Codex Leicester or Codex Hammer)

Value of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook (the Codex Leicester or Codex Hammer) fetched the highest price ever paid for a book at a public auction at $30.8 million. The buyer was Bill Gates and this record-breaking sale occurred in 1994.

What is Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook?

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook refers to a collection of writings and sketches compiled by the renowned Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was a remarkable figure known for his mastery in multiple fields, including art, science, engineering, and anatomy. He meticulously documented his observations, ideas, and inventions in numerous notebooks throughout his lifetime.

One of the most famous and valuable notebooks attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is the Codex Leicester, also known as the Codex Hammer. Named after its previous owner, Sir Thomas Leicester, the notebook consists of 18 double-sided sheets of paper filled with da Vinci’s scientific investigations and sketches. It primarily focuses on his studies related to water, geology, astronomy, and the properties of light.

Why is Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook valuable?

Leonardo da Vinci is such a renowned figure, works and ideas continue to inspire and captivate people to this day; and this notebook provides a firsthand glimpse into the mind of this esteemed historical person.

Again, this is mixed with scarcity – Only a fraction of his original notebooks have survived to this day.

Cultural Legacy, innovations, and ideas:

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook is an important cultural artifact that represents a milestone in human achievement. It is hard not to get excited about these drawings and notes.

Gutenberg Bible

Value of the Gutenberg Bible

In 1987, a complete copy was sold at Christie’s auction house for a record-breaking $5.4 million.

What is the Gutenberg Bible?

The Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Latin Vulgate Bible, which was the standard Bible text in Western Christianity at the time. It consists of two volumes, containing the Old and New Testaments, and is printed in Latin using the blackletter or Gothic typeface.

valuable book gutenberg bible

Why is the Gutenberg Bible so valuable?

Printed by Johannes Gutenberg, a German inventor and printer, in the 1450s, the Gutenberg Bible is widely regarded as the first major book printed using movable type. This therefore gives the book historical interest.

The factor bumping up the value of this text is scarcity – only around 180 copies were printed, and of those printed, there are estimated to only be around 48 or 49 copies left in existence. These surviving copies are dispersed across various institutions and private collections around the world. Each copy is considered a significant historical and cultural treasure, and they are highly valued by collectors and institutions alike.

valuable books birds of america john james audubon

Birds of America by John James Audubon

Value of the Birds of America

The Birds of America represents the second-highest price paid for a book at a public auction at $14.2 million.

What is the Birds of America?

Published between 1827 and 1838, this book features life-size illustrations of North American birds. It is known for its large format and detailed hand-coloured illustrations.

Why is the Birds of America so valuable?

Rarity and Limited Edition: The original edition of “Birds of America” consisted of 435 hand-coloured plates. These large-format plates were printed on high-quality paper, making the complete set of books substantial and expensive to produce. The limited number of surviving complete sets contributes to their rarity and subsequent value.

Artistic Excellence, Scientific and Historical Significance: “Birds of America” is not only an artistic masterpiece but also a significant scientific work. Audubon’s extensive field observations and detailed descriptions of each bird species contributed to the understanding of ornithology (the study of birds) during the 19th century. His approach of depicting birds in their natural habitats rather than relying solely on preserved specimens was groundbreaking at the time.

Bay Psalm Book

Value of Bay Psalm Book

In 2013, one of the eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book sold at public auction for $11.6 million.

What is the Bay Psalm Book?

The Bay Psalm Book, also known as the Whole Booke of Psalmes, is the first book printed in what is now the United States. It was published in 1640 in Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans. The book is a metrical translation of the biblical Psalms, intended for congregational singing.

Why the Bay Psalm Book so valuable

Why is the Bay Psalm Book so valuable?

The scarcity and historical significance of the Bay Psalm Book contribute to its value. Only around 1,700 copies were originally printed, and today, only a few copies are known to survive. The copy that sold for $11.6 million is exceptionally well-preserved, further increasing its desirability among collectors and institutions.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Examples of highly valued modern books

"The Tales of Beedle the Bard" by J.K. Rowling

In 2007, a handwritten and illustrated copy of this book, which was created by J.K. Rowling herself, was auctioned for £1.95 million ($3.98 million).

Why was this copy of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” so valuable?

Scarcity: The copy was part of a series of seven books, with six given to individuals closely associated with the Harry Potter series, and the seventh being auctioned for charity.

Special features: The auctioned copy was bound in brown Morocco leather with silvered corners and clasps. The text was handwritten by J.K. Rowling, and she also illustrated the book with her own drawings.

"Ulysses" by James Joyce

In 2002, a first edition of “Ulysses” from 1922, signed by James Joyce, sold for £275,000 ($460,000). This landmark modernist novel is known for its complexity and has a dedicated base of collectors.

Why was this copy of “Ulysses” so valuable?

Notoriety: The first edition of “Ulysses” was published by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. It faced considerable controversy and censorship due to its explicit content and unconventional narrative structure. Despite the challenges, the novel gained recognition for its artistic innovation and literary merit.

Special Features: The signed first edition that sold in 2002 holds additional value due to the autograph of James Joyce himself. Joyce was known for being reclusive and rarely signed copies of his books. Consequently, any signed editions of his works are highly sought after by collectors.

ulysses james joyce valuable book
the hobbit valuable books

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

In 2015, a first edition of “The Hobbit” from 1937, with a rare dust jacket, sold for £137,000 ($210,000).

Why was this copy of “The Hobbit” so valuable?

Significance: The first edition of “The Hobbit” is highly sought after by collectors due to its importance as the initial introduction to Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe.

Special features: The value of the first edition is significantly enhanced if it includes the rare dust jacket. The dust jacket for “The Hobbit” is known for its colourful design and illustrations. Many early editions did not have the dust jacket preserved, making those copies with intact jackets particularly valuable.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

In 2018, a signed first edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from 1960 was sold for $120,000 at auction. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is highly regarded and sought after by collectors.

Why was this copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” so valuable?

Significance: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is considered one of the most significant American novels of the 20th century. “To Kill a Mockingbird” addresses important themes of racial injustice, morality, and compassion, and has had a profound impact on literature and society. Its enduring popularity and critical acclaim have elevated its status.
Special Features: The fact that the first edition was signed by Harper Lee adds significant value.

Scarcity: Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published only one other novel during her lifetime, which was “Go Set a Watchman” (2015).

to kill a mockingbird first edition
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone valuable books

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by J.K. Rowling:

In 2019, a first edition of the first Harry Potter book, known as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (or “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States), sold for £68,000 ($87,000) at auction.

Why was this copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” so valuable?

Condition and rarity: The book was in excellent condition and one of only 500 printed in the first run.

First Print Run Features: The first edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” had a few notable features that make it unique. These features include the presence of the phrase “1 wand” repeated twice on page 53 (later corrected to “1 want”), as well as the misspelling of “Philosopher’s” on the back cover as “Philospher’s.” These errors, along with the subsequent corrections made in later printings, make the first edition distinct and more collectible.

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