Advice on Selling Your Old Books Through Auction

For people who are not seasoned bibliophiles that have a large quantity of books to dispose of, the task can be daunting. Usually their objective is to find an easy outlet for books such as selling to a dealer, giving to a charity or even throwing them in the trash. Many people don’t realize that going these routes is tantamount to throwing money away. Of course, donating to charity can be an honorable pursuit, but for those who need cash more than a tax write off, there is another easy way to dispose of books for cash; auction! There are a few things you should know prior to bringing your books to auction.

Benefits of selling at auction
The primary benefit of selling through an auction house is that your books will be placed on the open market and exposed to the world. Auction forces a number of interested parties to bid competitively against each other on your property, including dealers and collectors. Since the advent of the online auction, you can be confident that no matter where you take your books, so long as the auction house is online, you will get a fair market value for your books. A typical auction will attract book buyers locally, nationally and internationally.

Get objective opinions about your books
For many people, it seems logical to call a used book seller in their area to make an offer and haul the books away. Before you do this, realize that book dealers are in it to make a profit and in most cases they want to steal books for much less than their worth. If you opt to go this route be sure you have an understanding of the value of the books and seek a second opinion! Never let a dealer cherry pick your library and leave you with the dregs. Usually an auction house will take most if not everything and try to sell at top dollar on your behalf.

Have realistic Fair Market Value expectations
If you decide to look up values for your books online through sites like and, you may be dazzled with extraordinarily high prices for the same titles you have in your collection. Not so fast! Before you jump to conclusions, you must be sure you have the exact same copy that is being presented online—the slightest variation means you do not have the same thing. Also understand that what you see online are typically retail asking prices set by book dealers who have the luxury of waiting for months or even years for a buyer willing to pay their asking price. Auction values are not the same as retail values and this is true for virtually every auction house including Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Typically, at auction you can expect to realize 20%-60% of retail value. When you bring your books to an auction professional, she will quote you auction values based on hard data from actual past sales results. These sales results represent a fair market or “auction” value.

Be mindful of the condition and completeness of your books
The majority of value of a book is closely tied to condition and completeness. Very slight variations can dramatically impact value even if the book is well over 100 years old. A mint condition copy of a book may be worth hundreds of dollars whereas the same edition in fair to poor condition, with visible wear or damage, can be worth a fraction. To give you an example, a copy of The Great Gatsby, 1st edition in good condition, without a dust jacket, will fetch around $1000-$3000; add the dust jacket and the price rises to well over $100,000.

Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s valuable
One of the more common misconceptions among new book consignors is that a book’s age will automatically increase it’s value. This is not the case. The driving factors in value are rarity, condition and above all desirability. It doesn’t matter how old or rare a book is if no one is looking for it. The used book market is subject to the same forces of supply and demand that dictate the prices of any commodity. As such, many books from the 1600′s through the 1800′s will net less than $100 or have little or no resale value. The only way to truly determine a books value is to research the most recent sales record for the exact book. An auction house has the resources (usually databases that cost money to use) to find actual sales records for you.

Understand how your books will be sold
Some auction houses will only take high value books and place them in a cataloged sale where each book or small groups of books are meticulously researched, described and marketed. There are also many auction houses that will sell your better books in high end catalog sales and sell the books of lesser value in bulk groupings. An auction house that will provide services for both your better books and your bulk can be highly convenient. Book experts can separate the better books from the lesser books very easily.

Remember, it’s an auction
Auction is relatively unpredictable. You will probably be surprised at how well some books will sell and still disappointed at how others sell. Sellers are absolutely taking a gamble by selling at auction. Likewise, buyers are taking a chance on used books, wondering if they can resell for a profit or if they are overpaying for something.

In Conclusion
Much of the stress in liquidating books can be easily alleviated by finding a good auction house. Good auction houses act in the best interest of their consignors as they are the people who bring them inventory to sell. You can be sure that an auction house is looking out for your interest because the more the house makes for you, the more it makes for itself. Understanding this, the benefits and pitfalls and the process by which your property is sold will further alleviate stress.

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About Berkeley Brown
Anson Brown, co-founder and principal of Auction Exclusive, is an expert in rare books, prints, antique maps, historical manuscripts and autographs. He is also well versed in a variety of fine and decorative arts and antiques and has 7 years experience in the auction industry. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from George Mason University and and Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland.

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