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Tuesday, 29 December 2009


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Asking prices for used books need to be treated with a grain of salt. Indeed, some do rise and do so rather quickly. However, I routinely see asking prices for used books on various Amazon sites that are up into 3 figures when Amazon is still selling new copies of the book at its usual discounts off list. Its unclear to me at least how the pricing for used books is done; sites like Abebooks or Alibris will have prices that are all over the map for the same book, same edition, similar condition.

I passed on Gary Winogrand's 1964 when it first appeared; too expensive at sixty bucks, I thought. To acquire it today I'd have to refinance the house. But I did do one good thing - bought Kenro Izu's Sacred Places for $65. Though it's not a money thing, really. It's an inspiring book.

Yeah, "1964" is another sore spot for me. One I would have liked to have had.


Just ordered South East on the basis of the cover shot alone.


Two of the books you've recommended were on my wish list but I've just bought South East, so there's only jpegs to go. South East's cost me £50 which is about $79

My wife was sewing a hole in my Levi's yesterday while telling me I should buy more jeans and less books. But I wouldn't know what to do with two pairs

I agree with the philosophy of buying books because you love them, not for the investment. But, after a few decades of collecting, I'm amazed at the appreciation of some now long sought after books.

When I bought from book dealers, I always kept the purchase price penciled inside. I have some books that are marked under $100 that would now fetch many thousands.

Nice to know, but I still love them and have no intention of selling. It is smart, however, to get a collection appraised from time to time, if for no other reason than to maintain sufficient insurance.

If one is interested in investment, however, it's of course important to keep the book...and the cover...in great condition. A book with a damaged or lost cover could easily lose 75% of its value. A signed copy can also be important, if down the road the photographer is worthy. For living photographers, I've often taken books to exhibits or lectures, calling in advance to see if they have time and would be willing to sign.

I used to come across some real bargains in old book stores here and overseas. But, merchants have become increasingly savvy about book values, and of course the smaller stores are now hard to find.

This is perfect timing. I just went searching through TOP archives to unearth photo book recommendations! Thanks.


P.S. I took a printing class with C. Cramer at the Ansel Adams gallery in SF. He's a great teacher.

After reading this post of yours, I thought I would check to see what the current value of Fred Herzog's Vancouver Photographs is now. It was also featured on TOP (however I previously purchased it at the exhibition itself as I did Truth : Beauty). The current new price is $155! Another winner.

all of us who let wall street wipe out our retirement accounts can let the bookmarket gurus take us for more money..... LOL ... so where do I sign up???


You laugh, but it happens...I remember visiting an old housebound photographer in Maryland when I was in photo school, because I was thinking of buying a view camera and he built view cameras. He had a single case full of books, just stuff he'd been collecting as it came out, but he'd been collecting for fifty years, just a good book every so often. As a favor to him, I checked the value of some of his books for his insurance purposes, easy to do because I had a lot of book dealer friends at the time. Apart from a number of $500, $1k, and $2k books, he had a very rare early Weston book that my friends thought would fetch somewhere between 10 and $30k at auction. It was just something he bought off the shelf for the going price when it was new. Before we found out what it was worth he had offered to give it to me.

I remember asking him if he had bought a copy of Robert Frank's "The Americans," and he said he wouldn't have that @#$! in the house!

Sad old couple--their only son had been killed in Viet Nam, and there were mementos of him all over the house, his old guitar in the corner and so forth.


Another great set of books Mike!

For readers from the antipodes, you should also check out booko.com.au ... it presents the purchase price (list plus shipping to Australia) from a whole bunch of web-based book sellers. Amazon's expensive and slow shipping to Australia is shown up regularly by competitors. But of course, still buy using Mike's Amazon links to support TOP (I just did).

[Disclosure: I have no relationship with this web site, just wish my librarian mother hadn't shown it to me ... wouldn't have succombed as much :-) ]

Hi Mike,

Great time of year to discuss books!

I got "burnt" by the Saul Leiter madness last year - bought two copies, one still in cellophane. Doesn't look like it'll make me rich any time soon. It's the first time I ever took a flutter on a book, and no regrets, I love the copy I opened.

Probably my most unique book is "Hokkaido" by Michael Kenna. It is printed beautifully, with a cover made with two pieces of wood (beech?), signed by Michael Kenna. It is a first edition from a limited run of 5000. I bought it for £50 last January at the Kenna exhibition in London. No idea what it is worth really, but I don't plan to ever sell it. It's an object of art, and my kids will get to fight over it someday (hmm maybe I should sell it eventually!).

Photobooks (indeed all books) should be on the shelf to peruse and be enjoyed by all. If they happen to acumilate in monetary value that's great, but it's hard to financially match the pleasure that books give throughout a lifetime. And they're free to borrow from your local library!

On the strength of the video, I bopped over to Amazon to check out "First Light" (a very reasonable price), and noticed that Amazon wanted me to ask the publisher to put it out on the Kindle! For this book, uh, I don't think so...

In your post 'The Tenset', you asked "So, does anyone know of a site meant for looking at photographs that they consider ideal in terms of the UI?" For me, Mark Steinmetz' site http://www.marksteinmetz.net comes very close. The work is organized well, it couldn't be easier to navigate the photographs, and there is nothing to distract from them.

Since we're on the topic (kinda), if one were, say... inclined to sell a certain book or two at some time- what would be the best way to go about it (assuming there is one?

In this day and age, just any item can become a collectable, and thus a commodity. (Mark my words, one day a person who has saved pristine copies of Kiddy Meal plastic toys from McDonalds will make a hefty profit by selling them on the toy market. Just because they are kitch does not mean some will not value them highly.)

This is one facet of the joy of collecting, and I have not problem with it per se, but as others have noted, the key to maintaing monetary value is preservation. In fact, if you are really interested these books as investments vehicles, it would be better to just leave the plastic wrap and price tag on them.

Of course, you deny your self the art and that is your great loss. And, purchasing for investment purposes, if it ever grew too large a market, could reduce public access to such works, which become our great loss. Hopefully, such books would not turn out like those bottles of vintage wine that are stored and sold at auctions: the name is great, and the year may have been remarkable, but what do you really have in the bottle? Un-potable old vinegar. Wine is meant to be drunk to be truly enjoyed, and photo books are meant to be visually and emotionally discovered. In one sense, they are mediums for human interaction, and the creation of shared experiences. So, I personally would prefer to see people take the shrink wrap off, let the book breath, and share it with friends.


I bought a copy of New Topographics (first, GEH) in the early 90s for $6. I sold it last Spring to a dealer in Italy for $800. Had I been aware of the prices, I could have sold it for double that 12-months before, when the economy was better.

It was a dog-eared paperback with lousy reproduction, of photos and photographers I don't appreciate anymore. It's nice to win sometimes.

Don't mind me asking this, Mike but I was just wondering what would happen to your book collection were you to drop dead tomorrow?

Rory, the boards of Hokkaido are maple. I agree it is a unique art object, also one of my favorites. However, for whatever reasons, Kenna's books do not appreciate into the stratosphere. His most sought after title is Japan, yet a signed first printing can be bought for a few hundreds.

Stan, it's very easy to sell on amazon.com. Unlike on ebay, your listings are permanent, and you are not charged until you sell.

Keep in mind my collection isn't all that valuable. It's only insured for $20,000, which is roughly $4 per book. It's worth more than that if deaccessioned "optimally," but what tends to happen when a book collector dies is that a specialty book dealer is called in, who makes a (necessarily lowball) offer for the whole lot, and carries it all away.

The offers are low for two reasons. First, because the book dealer needs to get some sort of reward for dealing with the mass of books going forward--carting them away, researching their value, and reselling them--and that reward is in the form of much higher retail prices for the "cherry" items in the collection. And, second, because specialty book dealers often don't have a lot of cash.

It might be nice if I could "set aside" the more valuable books so my son, who would naturally inherit my "estate" (just the term makes me chuckle--I'm not wealthy by any stretch) would know which ones they are. But unfortunately it's not a stable subset...the value of some of the items will rise, others fall. That's a dynamic process, so it's ongoing. Furthermore, I'm not really sure I know which ones are "valuable" from a monetary standpoint--I really do tend to value books in terms of their content and their meaning to me, as opposed to what someone else might pay for them.

The motive behind your question isn't really clear from the question itself--does this tell you what you wanted to know?


Asking prices in the online venues are often pretty optimistic, as others have pointed out.

If there are enough copies out to be showing up there (this won't work too well for real rarities), Ebay is a useful price check. Not the minimum bid or buy-it-now prices, but when you tell it to search completed transactions. Those prices represent actual purchases/sales, and so have more reality to them. But you can only see the last 30 days, so it has to be something people are actively buying and selling.

While I do buy on Ebay sometimes, with considerable care, I find it an excellent place to sell camera equipment and some computer equipment. Lots of buyers seem to be willing to pay what I think are unreasonably high prices.

Mike's post reminds me (and others too) that something we think is valuable demonstrates its value after it is sold. This lesson is usually learned after a loved one passes on and we find their valued treasures are not monetary treasures.

True, but a lot rides on that word "valued" in your phrase "valued treasures." Why exactly did our loved ones value their treasures? Did they value them because they had some meaning, or were pleased by their quality or their antiquity, or for some other non-monetary reason? Or did they value them largely or entirely because they THOUGHT they had monetary value?

I would guess that it's the latter sort who are most often disappointed. I'm sure many people get pleasure out of believing that their possessions are rare and fine, and anyone who watches "Antiques Roadshow" from time to time knows that people attach stories to their possessions that often might have a fairly tenuous connection to the truth.

Every rare or used book dealer is familiar with the scenario of people bringing in old family bibles to sell. The books are often very elaborate and might be 100-200 years old. They're also often considerably worn and might have family genealogical data written inside. These books have a double-whammy against any kind of marketability--a) they're extremely common, and b) nobody wants them. The book dealers have to tell the supplicant that their treasured and ancient family bible not only has LITTLE value, but often, that it has NO value at all--not even $10. This can be painful for all concerned since sometimes people don't try to sell such things until they're in dire straights.

On the other hand, sometimes things really do have value. I had a neighbor a number of years ago--quite poor--who said that his family had about 120 photographs of Marilyn Monroe that some family member got from an amateur photographer in the 1950s who had spent a few days with her when she was very young and unknown. Unfortunately the archive had been destroyed in a basement flood, but it's quite possible some of those prints had actual value. (Depending of course on how accurate the neighbor's description was--it's also possible it was really a bunch of old magazine clippings of her and was worth nothing.)

And then there's a great story I like to retell, even though it's Bob's story and not mine: my friend Bob's parents were moving out of his childhood home, and he got a call from his mother one morning asking him if he would like his old baseball cards. She had found a shoebox full of them in the back of a closet or something. He said no, he had no interest in them any more, and she should throw them out.

Something about it nagged at him all afternoon, however, so that evening he called her back to say that if she hadn't gotten rid of them yet, maybe she should keep them. It turned out she had been having similar misgivings, and had decided to wait a day or two before throwing them away.

The upshot, of course, as I'm sure you've guessed: The shoebox full of old baseball cards brought a grand total of $24,000 from a sports memorabilia dealer. The gem was a pristine Mickey Mantle rookie card, but many of the cards were worth more than $100.

"Treasure from the attic" indeed....


Re your reminder of the Saul Leiter "fiasco" (for appreciation hungry collectors that is): In this case it was Steidl, who ran a second run of an undisclosed number of copies. Nazraeli otoh is on record to go oop with Kenna and Steinmetz. Could one identify promising publishers along the lines of such incidental knowledge? Or at least vice versa establish the blanks.

While I agree that it makes sense - in books as in original art - to only buy what you like, it would be an additional aspect to "know" that an item would hardly ever get dearer as the publisher has a record of simply reprinting ad nauseam. "Looking In Robert Frank The Americans" e.g. is Steidl again.


Thanks for answering that Mike. I was just curious if you ever thought about these things. I now realize that my choice of words was a little flippant though. Sorry about that.


"In this day and age, just any item can become a collectable, and thus a commodity. (Mark my words, one day a person who has saved pristine copies of Kiddy Meal plastic toys from McDonalds will make a hefty profit by selling them on the toy market. Just because they are kitch does not mean some will not value them highly.)"

And I in fact have done that... saved Happy Meal toys (in their original packaging) since the mid-1980s, when I started taking my kids to McDonalds. I've continued buying and saving to this day. Someday (in my retirement, probably) it will be fun to put those toys on EBay. My investment has been steady but negligible.

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