Rare Books in an Estate: What to Do?

Rare-Books-AuctionOne of the most difficult tasks facing someone taking care of a loved one’s estate is figuring out which items are valuable. We all know that inherited fine art can be very valuable and should be evaluated by a professional and there are endless blogs, magazines, and TV shows that discuss what to do with inherited antiques and furniture. There’s a whole book about selling inherited collectible coins. But search for “inheriting rare books” and you’ll find almost no information. Yet many people inherit libraries containing hundreds of books and have no idea if any of them are valuable or special. As a result, libraries often get little attention when they are inherited as part of an estate.

Wherever you reside, managing an estate can be complicated and overwhelming. A recent JD Supraarticle, titled California Estate Planning: What to Do if You Inherit a Library,” warns against failing to value books that are left as part of an estate. However, libraries and rare books can frequently be hidden treasures.

You never know if the library has tucked away an inscribed first edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway. That’s going for $8,500 on Ebay right now. Or maybe a signed J.D. Salinger “The Catcher in The Rye.” Asking price for this is only $55,000 these days. These rare first editions or hard-to-find antique items are out there. If you are left with the responsibility of sorting through a collection containing hundreds of volumes, and you have little experience with books, where do you start?

An experienced estate planning attorney should be able to help you. In addition, you can start be doing some of the preliminary research yourself. Websites such as www.Abebooks.com and www.AddALL.com are extremely detailed and gather data from numerous book sites. There is also the American Book Prices Current database (www.bookpricescurrent.com). This is a valuable tool that about every professional bookseller in North America knows and uses. This database shows you if a book has sold at auction in the past.

If you don’t have the time to catalog and research all those hundreds of book titles and ISBN numbers on a website or go through entire libraries by hand, consult an experienced rare book dealer. He or she can quickly identify rare or unusual items in your library and estimate their worth by taking into account the rarity of a book, its condition, and the book’s provenance (its ownership history).

According to the original article, most rare book dealers are happy to buy books and libraries, as some will want to make you an offer on the most valuable titles. So don’t discount a library collection bequeathed to you in an estate—Earnest or J.D. may be hiding in there somewhere.


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