There's a richness to antique books that transcends their status as one of the world’s most beloved collectibles. Books document the evolution of our need to make sense of the world around us. This urge can be seen in the first Gutenberg bible of 1455; the ‘First Folio’ of plays by William Shakespeare, published in 1623; John James Audubon’s monumental “Birds of America,” which was printed between 1827 and 1838; and even the pocket-size Beat-poetry paperbacks, published by City Lights bookstore in the 1950s and ’60s. Each, in its own way, reveals the priorities and passions of the culture.

Whatever the genre—be it biographies or cookbooks, children’s books or classic works of science fiction—and regardless of the title, most collectors focus on first editions. First editions are coveted because their print runs tend to be small. They're also considered to be the closest a reader can get to the author’s original intent for his or her work. Thus, first editions are particularly desirable if a book has been changed for the second printing.

Especially collectible are first editions of books that went on to win literary awards. The landmark children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” earned author and illustrator Maurice Sendak a Caldecott Medal in 1964, so its first-edition cover from 1963 does not feature the famous Caldecott seal.

Another, more recent, famous first edition is the 1997 version of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which was published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. in a print run of 1,000. The book went on to sell millions of copies for Scholastic in 1998, when it was re-titled for the U.S. market as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” No wonder copies of the Bloomsbury first edition routinely sell in the five figures.

Some people collect books for their aesthetic value. For these collectors, antique and vintage leather-bound books and sets are particular favorites. Some are covered in calf skin, which book binders found easy to dye. Others were made of Levant leather, which is goat skin and sometimes called Moroccan leather.

Examples of leather-bound books include individual works or collections by 19th century authors, from naturalist Charles Darwin, whose “On the Origins of Species” was first published in 1859 before being re-titled as “The Origins of Species” in 1872, to novelist Charles Dickens, whose monthly and weekly serialized stories were bound into classics such as “The Adventures of Oliver Twist” and “A Tale of Two Cities.”

American 20th-century novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925), John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” ...

Prized science-fiction books from the past 150 years include Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” which was first published in France in 1870 before being translated into English in 1872. H.G. Wells gave us “The War of the Worlds” in 1898 and “When the Sleeper Wakes” a year later. Collectible modern science-fiction authors range from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke to Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the 1982 sci-fi-film classic, “Blade Runner.”

In all cases, a book that has been signed by its author is more sought-after than one that has not, although books with inscriptions (eg: ‘To my dear friend, so-and-so’) are usually not as collectible as ones with just a signature. Biographies and memoirs are a favorite of former politicians and retired generals, who have been known to use the bully pulpit of a book to tell their version of history. Such books can often be found with the author’s signature on the title page.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Gallery of Book Trade Labels

Gallery of Book Trade Labels

Greg Kindall's collection of over 2100 colorful and historic book labels, pasted into books by publishers, printers… [read review or visit site]

Rare Karate Book Collection

Rare Karate Book Collection

This visually interesting and highly specialized collection from the Hawaii Karate Museum focuses on rare and histo… [read review or visit site]

Czech Book Covers

Czech Book Covers

This Smithsonian microsite showcases Czech avant-garde book cover designs from the 1920s and 30s, complete with hig… [read review or visit site]

Google Book Search

Google Book Search

Want to do one quick search and pull up the mother lode of vintage books? Try Google Book Search, a database filled… [read review or visit site]

Bruce Black's gallery of paperback book covers from the 1940s and 50s. With help from numerous contributors, he's a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

2 Vol Antique 1852 Black Americana Uncle Toms Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe BooksC. Clavius Astrolabium Rome Astronomy 400 Woodcuts Pigskin Binding 1st Ed 15931746 Huge Map Of North America Amerique Septentrionale By Jean B. B. D'anville1589 Parchment Book Filled With Medieval Manuscripts From The 1200s And 1300sBoy Scouts Of America Official Handbook, 1910, Seton & Powell, The "original" Very Rare Folio 1541 Bible With A Handsome Series Of Apocalypse WoodcutsWinnie The Pooh. A. A. Milne. 1st Edition 1st Issue 1926 True 1st State. Ex RareP-incunable Pliny The Elder's "natural History" Encyclopedia Historia Mundi 15351692: Birds, Serpents, Insects, Aquatic, And Fabulous Animals In The Bible FolioThe Dark Tower 5: Wolves Of The Calla Stephen King Signed Artist 1st/1st Sealed Bible -new Testament- With 127 Amazing Woodcuts Hans Holbein - Sebald Beham 15731837*swainson's Birds Of Western Africa*natural History*ornithology*engravings1629 King James Holy Bible, Old & New Testament, Quarto, English, No Reserve1788 The History Of America 3 Volume Set With All 4 Maps + Engraving W Robertson1615 Breeches English Bible Geneva-tomson-junius Version With Apocrypha1552 Beautiful Massive Vellum Binding - Paolo Giovio - Venice Parchment HistoryAnno 1592: A Very Old Book Printed In Basle - Switzerland! Manuscript Binding!1773 On Witches Witchcraft Magic Exorcism Devils Demonology Paradoxa DiabolicaLewis Carroll. Alice In Wonderland. Thomas Maybank 1907 Ex Rare. Not In LovettEaston Press 100 Greatest Books Ever Written Lot Of 18 Leather Books Great CondPresident Barack Obama Signed Autobiography +psa Coa & Guarantee1370 Medieval Vellum, Amazing Latin Leaf "gold Ramifications" Book Of Hours..s351547 Original Gryphius Vellum Binding M. Tullii Ciceronis Handwriting Cicero5 Vol Antique 1936 Gargantua Et Pantagruel, 76 Louis Icart Engravings Book Set1580: Artistotle : Fine Unrestored Swiss Renaissance Binding - Very RareThe Dark Tower 6: Song Of Susannah By Stephen King Signed Artist 1st/1st Sealed Super Rare 1848 Pre Civil War 1st Edition Ethiopian Glee Book Negro Melodies Yqz1726 History Of Ancient Philosophers Pythagoras Plato Greek Roman Religion RareUrsperger Chronicle By Burchard 105 Portraits Emperors And Monarchs -folio- 1540Arthur Rackham. 1st Edition 1st Issue 1913. 44 Stunning Mounted Colour PlatesAnno 1536: A Very Rare Book Printed In Basle - Switzerland!Antique 1737 The Gentleman's Magazine Leather-bound Hardcover E. Cave - R30Dorothea Lange / An American Exodus (roth, Parr) Scarce 1st Sc1880 Dante's Inferno Gustave Dore Occult Hell Satan Demon Engravings Freemasonry1890 Morris, History Of British Butterflies, 72 Hand Coloured Plates Lepidoptera1723 Galileo "autori Che Trattano Del Moto Dell’acque" 1st Ed Hydraulic Plates1863-7 Morris, Cabinet History Of British Birds, 358 Fine Hand Col Plates, 8volMein Kampf -1939 -hb -adolf Hitler - Unexpurgated Version - Volumes 1 & 2-rareArkham House Dark Carnival By Ray Bradbury Original Near-mint Dust Jacket, 19471872 Morris, Natural History Of British Moths, 132 Colour Plates 4 Vols BindingsA 200 Years Old German Illuminated Manuscript Book!simply Wonderful! Tännesberg!Printed 1683: The Famous "danske Lov" - Rare - Gothic TypeActa Eruditorium 1682-1691, Mencke, Leibniz, 10 Vols, Scientific Journal, PlatesAnno 1797: A Very Rare Grimoire Prayer Book With Sigils Drawing Of Archangels!1829 Narrative Journey Upper Provinces Of India 3 Volume Set Reginald Heber RareTiger Woods Signed The 1997 Masters My Story Book1852 Meyer's Zeitung World Atlas 123 Mostly Hand Coloured Maps1863 Bree, History Of The Birds Of Europe 237 Hand Coloured Plates 1st Ed 4 VolsStephen King Berni Wrightson - Cycle Of The Werewolf [1983] Rare First Edition1565 History Of Skanderbeg Albania Barleti Historia Del Magnanimo Ottoman Empire1370 Medieval Vellum, Amazing Latin Leaf "gold Ramifications" Book Of Hours..s361610 Folio,1st Ed Bosio La Trionfante E Gloriosa Croce Knights Of Malta, Egypt..Cormac Mccarthy: Outer Dark, 1st Printing, 1968 Random House, Hard Cover, W/ DjMoonchild Aleister Crowley 1929 1st First Edition Dw Dj Magick Fine Copy SignedC1859 Museum Natural History Mammalia, Birds, Fish Insects 136 Plates 80+ H/ ColTales Of Terror 1808 • Gothic Parody W/ "disgusting" Colored/folding Plates1706 Bartoli: Le Pitture Antiche Delle Grotte Di Roma 75 Amazing Engraved Plates1870 Morris, History Of British Birds, 305 Fine Hand Coloured Plates, 5 Volumes1572 Collection Of Criminal Proceedings Venice Ziletti Huge Vellum Binding Folio1869 Wild West Americana Murder Indians Travel Slavery Mines Ms/co/ca Utah Iowa