(The Value of a Good Book)

By Leon Castner

One hesitates to answer such an esoteric question since everyone has a Bible, has seen a Bible, or has heard about a Bible.  It happens to be the most published book of all time. It probably has more versions and is printed in more languages and sits in more houses than the next top ten books put together.  It is, as one of my old tee shirts suggests, more common than dirt.  (Oh, I remember, the shirt says that “I am older than dirt”-referring to me.)

That may be the truth, but the Bible is certainly older than I am.  Its origins start with the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) supposedly written by Moses.  These were grouped together and form the basis for the Torah (books of the law).  The complete Bible, including Old and New Testaments, came about after many centuries of debates and discussions, questioning whether certain portions should be considered part of it or not.  This canonization (including or excluding parts) has been the source of great conflict and still evidences itself in the fact that some Bibles contain the apocrypha awhile others do not.

Amazingly, the Bible didn’t have “chapters” until the 13th century and it took another 300 years before it was divided into verses.  The copying of the Bible by monks became a lifetime obsession.  Since every church needed one to read aloud, it kept them busy.  Individuals didn’t have a copy because it was too time consuming and/or expensive for that to happen.

Johannes Gutenberg changed all that.  Around 1454 he was the first to use movable metal type to print a book.  The book happened to be the Bible.  The invention of the press became known as the Gutenberg Revolution since it changed bookmaking forever.  The Bible, as well as other books, could now be printed in quantity, relatively quickly, at a cost accessible to many.  His first printings of the Bible became icons, not only of religious history, but of publishing.  They are among the rarest and most expensive books that exist.  (Supposedly there remain about 49 copies or partial copies in the world.)

The point in providing this history is to demonstrate the importance of that printed Bible and why it is so valuable.  It could have been another book, but it wasn’t.

The Gutenberg Revolution changed religion, since now everyone could have and read a Bible for themselves, and it changed book making, the printed page-which forms the basis of all modern communication. 

Early Bibles-and I mean early, are those from the 1400 or 1500’s.  (Anything else is simply not an “old” Bible.)  If it dates from 1450 to 1600, it could have a lot of value, but it must be complete and in good condition (unless it’s the Gutenberg one).  Many were written in German or Latin, which do not have as much interest as anything written in English from the same period.  Many of these Bibles will have calligraphy embellishments, finely printed engravings, and often tooled leather covers.

If a Bible was printed in the 1700’s and is from England or any other European country, it is unlikely it will be worth more than a few hundred dollars.  The exception would be those printed in America (the colonies).  Again, it must be in good condition and not partial.  It must have visual impact (large titles, lots of illustrations, great binding) and often will contain family histories.  These can be worth a few hundred up to and over a thousand, but be warned, it must be something unusual.

Bibles printed in the 1800’s are as common as hen’s teeth (I’ve never seen a hen’s tooth, but I’m told they’re common!)  Remember, every household had a Bible.  It was the most important piece of property they owned, even if they didn’t read it.  Translations abounded, however, and many printers tried to make their living from selling Bibles.  These are rarely worth more than $75.  There are exceptions, but they are those that are from special editions.  You can probably Google “rare Bibles” and find a list of 5 or 6 from this timeframe.  Your chance of having one is slim-at best.

One of the most prevalent Bibles from the 19th century was the big “Cottage Bible,” a large size heavy duty Bible used for home reading.  It often has a black tooled cover, sometimes brass buckle, and “looks” old.  It will have illustrations, a great title page, and was usually kept in a safe place and used at holidays for readings.  I would venture to guess that every house in the 1870’s had a cottage Bible-even if it wasn’t a cottage.

These are found regularly in attics and old bookcases and ceremoniously arrive at Appraisal Days as if they were The Holy Grail.  Unfortunately, they are not, even though in a certain sense they are!

Bibles from this era might contain special pages, however.  Either in the front or back of the album the printer often placed a few pages for daguerreotypes (photographs) of family members.  The Bible acted as both text and an ancestral tree, depicting family members using emerging photography technology.  Often these pictures have more value than the book and can be a treasure trove of unsuspected goodies.  In addition, pages may have registries of births, deaths, marriages, or baptisms.  In addition to the possibility of gleaning historical records, these pages may have calligraphy, coloring, or hand made emblems or “graffiti.”  These pieces, the earlier ones called Fraktur in Pennsylvania Mennonite areas, can be extremely valuable.  These folk-art pieces are highly collected, but usually date pre-1840.

Bibles from the last century (the 20th) are seldom worth more than what was paid for them-if that.  There were just too many printed.  They have almost no interest for a book collector and are treated as “used goods.”  The best use of them might be for leaving in a room so that it can assist in the revival of someone like Rocky Raccoon.  (Excuse me Paul McCartney.)

Admittedly the Bible has great spiritual value (I should know since I’m a priest), but the numerical worth of any printed copy is seen through the eyes of the antique book collector, who looks for rarity and market demands, not seeking treasure in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt.  In all probability, the value of your old Bible is in what it says, not what the market will pay.

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