The Antiquarian Book - questions and answers

What is an antiquarian book ?

Generally the term « antiquarian book » relates to any work no longer in print. This may be extended to prints, maps, autographs and manuscripts.

In France, antiquarian books include works published since the beginning of printing and up to the end of the 18th century ; 19th and early 20th century books come under the heading « romantic » or « modern » and subsequent 20th century works are « contemporary ».

Our personal interpretation is that an antiquarian book is an out of print work which has sufficient merit to warrant being conserved, protected or collected : an important text, evidence of a land mark in the history of ideas , knowledge or society ; a rare printing, a particularly elegant printing on special paper, or a work whose illustrations or binding render it noteworthy.

Book sizes

  • 2 volumes quarto and folio atlas
  • 8vo, 12mo and 24mo sizes
Book size traditionally refers to the number of times the sheet of paper is folded by the printer. Until machine-made paper appeared in the mid-19th century, the sheets of paper supplied by paper makers, at a given period, are relatively uniform (about 45 x 65cm in the mid-18th century for example), and tend to become progressively larger from the 15th to the 19th century.

Books made from sheets folded in two are called folio; in four are called quarto (4to), in eight octavo (8vo), in twelve 12mo, 16mo, 24mo, etc.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term folio generally applies to a book whose average height is 45-50 cm, quarto is 25-30cm, octavo about 20cm and 12mo about 15-18cm.


  • Sheepskin
  • Calf
  • Morocco
  • Shagreen
  • Publisher's decorated cloth
  • Soft cover, stitched as issued
  • Half morocco binding
  • Half morocco with corners
  • Blind tooled vellum
  • Publisher's cloth
  • Glazed calf binding
In contrast to contemporary books whose pages are simply assembled and glued, the pages of early books were sewn.

The sheets were printed then folded to form quires which were then sewn together, or onto ribbons or strings.

Soft bound books have a paper cover, whereas in leather bound books or cased bindings, the ribbon or string ends are attached to the boards.

The book – spine and boards - can then be covered with leather or cloth, either completely (full binding), or partly (half-binding) to give an attractive and solid whole.

Publishers’ bindings, very frequent in the second half of the 19th century, are often covered with percaline, a thin resistant cloth, which can be illustrated and gilded.

Three main types of animal skin are used for leather bindings:

  • sheepskin, the cheapest and least resistant to rubbing;
  • calf, a smooth skin with a good resistance but of variable quality;
  • morocco (originally goat skin from Morocco), an attractive large-grained skin which is very resistant but expensive, reserved for luxury bindings.

In addition 15th and 16th century books may also be bound in scrolls or vellum, made of scraped and stone polished sheep or goat skins.

Starting in the 19th century, many books were bound in shagreen – originally donkey, mule, horse or goat skin ; resistant, gauffred with a small grained motif during its preparation, it was often used for publishers’ bindings at the end of the 19th century.

What is an original or first edition ?

It is the first publication of a work . When a work has been published without the author’s consent, the term « First edition » is used for the first authorised edition.

A « partly original » edition is one which has been altered – usually enlarged – and contains portions appearing for the first time.

How do I protect my books ?

Old books are not particularly demanding, but they do fear extremes : avoid heat, direct light, excessive dryness and above all, humidity. They must be dusted regularly to prevent insects making comfortable nests, and kept out of reach of really dangerous ( !) animals such as rodents and domestic pets.

Leather bindings, especially those exposed to a very dry atmosphere, benefit from the use of a special polish (such as the Cire 213 from the French National Library, which is also an insecticide and fungicide).

How do you price a book ?

  • Ex-libris
In general, the value of an old book is determined by a combination of several criteria, grouped below in four categories :

  • Contents or interest of the text : this can be independent of the period (for example an important literary work), or linked to its historical context (revolutionary journals, newspapers), or represent an important milestone in the evolution of ideas or knowledge (ex. Darwin, Laplace).
  • The physical characteristics : state of preservation, quality of the binding. Generally one prefers a book as close as possible to its original state – paperbound as published, in its first contemporary binding, or in the publisher’s binding for some 19th century books. But an attractive binding by a famous master binder is also sought after.
    The book must always be complete, with all pages present and in good condition. Except in rare cases, an incomplete work or one in poor condition, has little value.
    Another interesting criteria is the provenance, some of which are particularly evocative : books previously owned by an important historical figure, armorial bindings, ex-libris and other marks of ownezship.
  • The criteria of rarity and age taken alone are not usually determinant. The saying « what is rare is valuable », does not apply to the antiquarian book.
    A book's rarity may be due to many causes: the subject matter may be very narrow (canon law, technical books) or the stock may have been destroyed or censured. Nevertheless, many old texts, even if they are rare today, only have a minimal value since the first reason for rarity is the lack of public interest !
    In the same way, with the exception of most incunabula or early 16th century publications, age is not determinant.
  • Finally, a book may be considered a work of art, because of its illustrations, its typography, its layout or its binding.
    The above criteria give some idea of how to determine a book’s value.

    The ultimate phase of valuation draws on market information : booksellers’ catalogues, public aution sale results, commercial databases. All these sources must be compared and used with great caution, in view of the many variations between the copies offered for sale and the multiple factors which come into consideration.

Therefore, in spite of all the information sources now available, the serious evaluation of a book can only be made by a specialist.

Is the antiquarian book a good investment ?

Our opinion is that in general an antiquarian book should not be considered a financial investment, and should not be acquired for that purpose.

This does not exclude the fact that capital gains may be realised. As for antiques or paintings, the quality of the investment depends primarily on three factors : taste or personal interest of the buyer ; the quality of the work acquired ; and the evolution of the market.

On the one hand, the market reflects imperfectly the intrinsic value of a work. On the other hand, and while the antiquarian book market is generally not speculative, it is not exempt from the fashions or tendencies which affect the evolution of our society today.

Good investments in retrospective made by certain collectors rarely seem to derive from a financial approach, but are more a combination of careful purchasing reflecting a taste for works whose value had not been appreciated by the market, and their later discovery (or rediscovery) by a larger public.

We can only emphasise that for a collector, the condition of the book is an essential criteria and that except on rare occasions, incomplete works or those in poor condition should be avoided.