Tips on buying books at auction
National Auctioneers Association member David G. Helmer has loved books for as long as he can remember.
So, it is no surprise that Helmer, co-owner of Braun & Helmer Auction Service in Saline, Michigan, has built a niche in collecting and selling books at auctions. With more than 20 years as an auction professional, Helmer has bought and sold books around the world.
“I have been reading my whole life. If I read something and think it is a good book, I buy a first edition,” Helmer said. “It might take a year or two, and I might have to save up for a while, but I find a way. So, I don’t just collect, but I also read books.”
In coming years, he said, the market is likely to be flooded as baby boomers, the first generation to acquire books in large quantities, are liquidating estates in record numbers. Book trends also are quickly changing, as interests have changed.
The European market is particularly strong.
“The European market is more enthusiastic about books than in the United States,” Helmer, CAI, CES, GPPA, said. “They are admirers of information.”
As an expert, Helmer also offered a couple of tips as someone navigates book sales:
Step 1: Examine and investigate
Ask yourself a few questions. What occupation did the seller have? Where did these books come from? Did the seller collect or specialize in anything? Were they an innovator of any trend?
People who traveled or dug deep into a hobby tend to be more likely to have valuable books.
“Nothing mass produced will be worth any money. Typically, something bought at a book store or a library sale will not be worth anything,” Helmer said. “If you read John Grisham or Stephen King, even a first-edition hardback will maybe be worth $1 in six months.”
Step 2: Research
Check the number lines on the copyright page of the book to determine the number of edition.
Some companies printed bootleg copies of books, so look for the correct country of origin and publisher, illustrations and other identifying markers.
And remember: valuable books are buried inside home libraries.
“There are first editions of Charles Dickens’ first novel, ‘ Pickwick Papers’. These are in people’s homes. You’ve just got to know what to look for.”
Helmer recalled finding a third edition of the “Book of Mormon” mixed in with old cookbooks in one home. The family had no idea their grandmother had owned the rare book, which sold for $5,000.
He also once sold letters a family found written by Susan B. Anthony, which sold for an undisclosed amount to the University of Rochester in New York.
Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re scouting books as an auction buyer or seller. And, to find the NAA auction professional in your area, visit: auctioneers.org/find-auctioneer.