Tips of the Trade
Sentimental Favorites, Roadshow Flops
Appraiser Ken Gloss talks about common visitors to the ROADSHOW.
This family bible was purchased in the 1870s.
A reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.
This New York Herald was not printed the day after Lincoln was shot.
Even today, Twain volumes bearing his printed signature are typically worth less than $10.
Old elementary school primers don't sell well today.
At the books and manuscripts table, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraisers have laid eyes on some buttercups in the field, including Lewis Carroll's self-annotated Alice in Wonderland, a surviving menu from the last luncheon served on the Titanic, and a bona-fide British cookbook dated 1680.
Many of America's most cherished antique keepsakes have precious little market value. Fnd out why ...
But along with the buttercups, Ken Gloss, owner of The Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and others at their tables, are also routinely inundated with common dandelions of the antiquarian field. "Many of the things in people's attics, well, they think they're old and they think they're valuable, but they show up at every show," Ken says. He has personally passed on such disappointing news to hundreds of ROADSHOW guests.
What's on Ken's "List of Most Common Books and Manuscripts"? To name a few reliable regulars: family bibles, the United States Declaration of Independence, the New York Herald Tribune's reprint of Lincoln's assassination, and "authorized" editions of Mark Twain's books.
Billions of Bibles
The weightiest of the common ROADSHOW visitors is the American family bible dating from the end of the 19th century. "Even when people didn't have another book in the house, they often bought a family bible," Ken explains. For fun, Ken and other appraisers began counting the number of family bibles that appeared at the Books and Manuscripts table at the St. Louis ROADSHOW during season five. By morning coffee break, more than a dozen had made dusty landings. By lunchtime a few dozen, and by the time the cameras were turned off, 70 bibles had come and gone.
"Sentimentally, if it's a bible passed down through just one family, it's a priceless item. You can't put a value on that," Ken explains. "But monetarily, it's also priceless—meaning it doesn't have much value."
Most could fetch between $50 and $100, with only the ones in pristine condition—often purchased as gifts for those who ply religious trades, such as priests and ministers—garnering higher prices. Ken suggests families stash away their old bibles for future generations, especially if they contain genealogical information like names of the newly born, the married, and the deceased. Those who decide to part with them should offer them to local libraries or historical societies. Ken says these institutions "love them," often copying genealogical information and photos from numerous family bibles to form a database of a town's ancestors.
Passion for Parchment
Perhaps the most hopeful ANTIQUES ROADSHOW visitors unfurl a crinkled old brown parchment page titled "Declaration of Independence."
More of these historic documents began appearing about two years ago, when one of the original Declarations of Independence that had been discovered hidden behind a painting in a flea market frame sold for $8.1 million at auction. "After that, everyone went up in their attic and found Declarations of Independence," Ken says. "It was a barrage." What makes all these copies uncovered in attic alcoves or basement boxes ordinary—and worth only about a quarter each—is that they are reproductions.
Thousands of these browned documents were printed for the country's Centennial celebrations in 1876, Ken explains. They and other copies look nothing like the handwritten original, heavily protected at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., or the copies printed in Philadelphia and distributed to the 13 colonies in 1776 to spread the revolutionary news. These 1776 copies were produced without signatures and printed on white paper, which makes them actually appear newer than the much later commemorative reproductions, Ken says. "Most of the people who come to us with reproductions would might not even recognize an original," he speculates.
Another regularly unfurled antique document is the land grant, most dating from the 19th and early-20th centuries, and usually alleged to have been personally signed by a President. But that is virtually never the case, Ken explains. "After Andrew Jackson, no presidents ever signed land grants. They were just too busy." The presidential signatures that appear on these grants inevitably were done by secretaries.
Old English vellum indentures and wills, which are often hand written, constitute yet another category of perennial favorites. "Unless they're connected with someone famous, they're usually worth $25," explains Ken, noting that lawyers sometimes buy them and put them up on their walls because they look so old, official and impressive.
Important News, Worthless Newspapers
About once a week, someone calls Ken at his shop to ask about a particular historic newspaper the family has had tucked away for about a century. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Caller: "I have a copy of a newspaper from the day after Lincoln was shot."
Ken's standard response: "Is it the New York Herald?"
Caller's usual answer: "That's right."
Ken's conclusion: "Chances are it's a reprint. There are very few originals."
The reprints were made within months and sometimes years of the actual assassination and have been saved by succeeding generations who did not know that they were worth little more than the paper they were printed on. "They are so common," Ken adds, "that the Library of Congress has a pamphlet describing them, so they don't have to answer questions about them over and over again."
Two other famous newspaper editions often fool people. One is the Ulster County Gazette, a New York newspaper, which printed one of the definitive issues about George Washington's death. The other is the famous Vicksburg, Mississippi, newspaper that was printed on wallpaper toward the end of the Civil War because the Confederates had run out of regular stock. "They're very famous papers and almost no originals exist," Ken says. "What we see on the ROADSHOW are later facsimiles."
Mark Twain's Marked Books
"You don't know how many times someone says to me, 'I have a book signed by Mark Twain.' The book says, 'This is the authorized edition.'" But as with the signatures on many reproductions of the Declaration, each Twain signature was printed, not hand-scrawled by the literary satirist himself.
Twain had his signature printed and added the phrase "authorized edition" because printers with little or no respect for copyright laws—common in his day—were printing bootleg copies of his books. It was Twain's way of letting his devoted readership know which book publishers paid him royalties. "He just wanted to get paid, that's what he cared about," says Ken, noting that even mint-condition "authorized editions" of Twain are worth less than $10.
ROADSHOW guests also often come in bearing the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, the autobiography of the Union Civil War general, published in 1885, which is considered one of the best military memoirs ever written. "I tell people it's a very common book and they inevitably point out that it was signed by Grant himself." Some authentications are difficult, but this one is easy. "Grant died before the book came out," Ken explains, noting the signature is printed in the book. "I could say, 'Grant might have come back from the dead to sign your copy,' but I try not to be a wise guy."
People also approach Ken and his cohorts with boxes of 19th-century schoolbook primers. By now, you can probably predict the gist of his assessment. "They are interesting and old, but every schoolhouse in every community across the United States had 20 or 30 textbooks at least. They're fun and interesting, but they're not terribly rare or valuable."
Despite Ken's low expectations, he emphasizes that he'll be the first to look carefully at historic newspapers, family bibles, books signed by Mark Twain, and even flimsy boxes of old textbooks. Ken always tries to bear in mind one of the favorite stories told by his father, also an antiquarian book dealer. He once came across a very ordinary-looking family bible, and thought it was just that, until it became clear that this was the one John F. Kennedy had put his hand on while taking his presidential oath of office.
"Once I was rummaging through a box of old textbooks figuring there was nothing in it," Ken recalls, "and at the bottom I found a book titled The Last Men of the Revolution. It looked like a textbook, but I opened it up and it had a photo of a soldier who had actually fought in the Revolutionary War. You're actually looking at someone from the Revolution. The book is worth about $2,000 or $3,000, so it makes you realize, you always have to check, because there's often a treasure at the bottom of the box. And that's what the ROADSHOW is all about."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Dakota, Lakota, Nakota: Languages of the Sioux (Bismarck, 2006)
Standing Up to the Academy (Bismarck, 2006)
Preserving Antique Books
Collecting Mistaken Maps
Searching Out Maps
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.