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Treasure on your Bookshelf

Originally published at About.com - 09/08/99

When I was a kid growing up in Montreal, we lived two doors down from an elderly couple in the antique business. Besides antiques, they also had a lot of old books. When I say old, I mean old! We're talking books from the mid to late 1800s.

As they were retiring they ended up giving us a small collection of them. I still have some that I have hung onto over the years.

These books are fascinating, not only for their contents, but for the craftsmanship with which they were fashioned, and the history that they are part of. For example, one fat 600 page book is called simply Great Shipwrecks. It is subtitled A Record of Perils and Disasters at Sea - 1544 to 1877. The book has no author - well of course somebody wrote it - but no author is credited. The book is richly illustrated with black and white woodcut drawings. Inside the book is inscribed "Napier Cochrane Xmas Day 1878 from Papa".

Frontispiece from Great Shipwrecks - Burning of the "Kent"

A popular writer for boys at the time was R. M. Ballantyne. I have two copies of Ballantyne's The World of Ice, one from a book club called The Boy's Own Library and the other published for the general audience. That book is listed on title page as having been published in London by T. Nelson and Sons in 1877.

Another interesting tome is Routledge's Every Boy's Annual. It is a collection short fiction and nonfiction as well as a variety of puzzles. The 1881 book is richly illustrated, some of the drawings in color. The colored drawings appear to be hand colored. Whether they came like that with the book, or whether little Ned, to whom the book is inscribed, did the coloring is not certain.

Right: Inscription dated 1856 from The Fairy Tales of the Countess d'Aulnoy

My favorite of these old books is a collection of fairy tales by the Countess d"Aulnoy. Various inscriptions show that it went through a succession of owners. The title page shows the book was published in 1855. The first inscription reads "to Dunlop Stewart Johnstone from her affectionate Papa - Aug. 26, 1856." The next inscription reads "Libeis A. Johnstone - 1909" and a final inscription reads " To Flying Officer P. R. Balenko - 1944 - Montreal, Canada."

Flying officer Balenko went on to better things, it seems. On the Table of Contents page is a stamp that says Peter Robert Balenko, Justice of the Peace, District of Montreal.

What's truly marvelous about this collection of fairy tales are the many illustrations in color. Again, they have the appearance of being hand painted with watercolors.

Illustration for Princess Belle-Etoile and Prince Cheri
The Fairy Tales of the Countess d'Aulnoy

Another favorite is a fascinating collection of 24 of Shakespeare's plays in leather-bound miniature editions. I have the complete set of 24 and the original box they came in (though patched together with tape). These were published by the Knickerbocker Leather & Novelty Company around the turn of the century. The company published leather-bound editions of a number of other authors as well.

After I moved to Vancouver, I bought a variety of other books from secondhand book shops. The city is a book lovers paradise with many used and antiquarian book shops. Most I bought to read, but some of them have value as collectors items as well. They include several books by Victor Hugo and some early editions of Ayn Rand's works.

And additionally, I have a number of autographed books. I got my first autographed book as a young Ayn Rand fan in university. In 1970 and in 1971 I made the pilgrimage from Montreal to Boston to hear her speak at her annual lecture at the Ford Hall Forum. On both occasions I brought a hard cover book to have autographed. Since her death they have soared in value.

There are an abundance of resources on the Net to find out the value of your rare books. One of the best is Bibliofind. Just type in the title, author, publisher, price range, whether signed or not, or any combination of these, and it will spit back a list of books, their prices, and the retailers selling them.

A similar service is provided by Bookfinder.com and AddALL A service specializing in books published before 1900 is AntiQbook aka the Antiquarian Books Database. This is a Dutch site with English pages as well.

To give you an idea of what sort of gold you might find on your dusty bookshelf, here's a table of some of the books in my collection and their prices (in $US) as listed on Bibliofind or other search sites. Some books have multiple sellers and the price listed is a range or the lowest price with a plus sign.

Title Author Publisher Date Value
Fairy Tales Countess d'Aulnoy Routledge 1855 $150-$200
Collected Works Victor Hugo Black 1928 $17.50
Collected Works Shakespeare Knickerbocker c1900 $200-$250
Toilers of the Sea Victor Hugo Nelson undated $8
World of Ice R.M. Ballantyne Nelson 1877 $35
A Voyage Round the World: South America Jules Verne Routledge 1876 $350
Second Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling Century 1898 $20
1984 (1st Canadian Edition) George Orwell Saunders 1949 $140
Atlas Shrugged (signed) Ayn Rand Random House 1957 $1250 +
For the New Intellectual (signed) Ayn Rand Random House 1961 $695 +


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