Antique Bible Buyer’s Guide

Collecting rare and antique Bibles is a very rewarding hobby, and an excellent investment. Often, however, people who are new to rare and antique Bibles are intimidated by their lack of knowledge in this area of specialty. They feel overwhelmed, and are afraid that they do not know how to tell a $400 Bible from a $4,000 Bible… or that they just do not know where to start. We can help you gain a firm foundation of knowledge very easily, and help you to become an educated consumer in the small but growing field of rare and antique Bible collecting.

The most important thing to understand about antiquarian and rare Bibles, is that their value (their price) is determined by a variety of factors, including:

  • Rarity… how many of this printing exist?
  • Historical Significance… is it an historically important printing?
  • Market Demand… do collectors want to buy this type of material?
  • First Edition Status… is it a first (or early) printing of its type?
  • Age… how old is this printing?
  • Condition… are the pages in good condition?
  • Collation… are any pages missing? Which ones and how many?
  • Binding… is it nice? Original? Is restoration or rebinding needed?
  • Provenance… did someone famous own it? Did they sign it?

All of these factors are fairly simple and self-explanatory, but we do need to elaborate on one of them: condition. It is important to understand that the condition of the binding, and whether or not the binding is original, is NOT a major factor in the value of most ancient Bibles. Bindings do not usually last for 300 or 400 years anyway, so most of the investment-grade ancient Bibles we sell have been nicely re-bound at least once in their life. The condition and completeness (collation) of the “text block” (the pages) is VERY important to the value of an ancient Bible. Concerning the condition and completeness of the pages, it is important to understand that price increases exponentially as you approach “perfection”.

Consider diamonds, for example: A one-carat round solitaire diamond, “F” in color, and “V V S-2” in clarity is colorless, flawless, and perfect to the naked eye… and would sell for less than $10,000. However, a one-carat round solitaire diamond, “D” in color, and better than “V V S-1” in clarity is colorless, flawless, and perfect under the microscope … and could fetch over $50,000. Just like with rare Bibles, price increases exponentially, on a “bell-curve” as you approach “perfection”. With ancient Bibles, however, absolute “perfection” is purely hypothetical.

Consider this example: A 1621 King James Bible in a nice binding, with 100% of the pages of scripture present and over 95% of those pages still in great condition, could sell for over $4,000. However, a 1621 King James Bible in a nice binding, with a dozen pages of scripture missing… OR… with a lot of its pages heavily water-damaged or even “cropped” (no blank margin area on the top of the page, and the headlines partially cut off the top… quite common) would be worth less than $400. Beware of the “bargain priced” antique Bible… it is usually worth a lot less than its “bargain price”.

Here are some technical terms that will assist you as you explore the world of ancient Bibles:

  1. Nearly 90% of all books and Bibles are standard “Quarto” size printings, approximately 6.5 to 7 inches wide by 8.5 to 9 inches tall by 2 to 3 inches thick. Larger pulpit “Folio” size printings are ten times as rare, and therefore more expensive. Smaller coat-pocket “Octavo” size printings are also available, though they are not as popular because the print is so small that it can be difficult to read.
  2. Typeface style in ancient Bibles is either “Black Letter”, a fancy gothic calligraphy-like typeface, or “Roman” type, a plain and crisp easy-to-read typeface like one would find in a modern book. Here is an example of a leaf from a Bible printed in Gothic Black Letter style type, and here is an example of a leaf from a Bible printed in Roman style type. The Gothic Black Letter may be slightly harder to read (not difficult once you get used to it), but it is much more popular than Roman style among collectors because Black Letter is so very beautiful.
  3. Bindings on ancient Bibles are always hardcover. Most are full leather (spine and both boards are covered in leather). Some are “half-calf” (spine is leather, as are the corners of the boards, but the center of the boards are cloth or marbled board). Armored or ornamented bindings with metalwork at the corners and center and clasps and latches that hold the book shut may be lovely, but they are extremely rare… being present on fewer than five percent of ancient Bibles. Most ancient Bibles do have raised-bands on their spine… also known as a “hubbed” spine. While many people initially say that they want a Bible with an ancient binding… we have found that people who see ancient bindings and professionally rebound Bibles side-by-side, usually choose the newer bindings. This is because they are more attractive, and have no wear on them. Rebinding a Bible in fresh, strong, new leather does NOT decrease its value, and can in some instances increase its value.
  4. Decorative stamping done into the leather is either “Blind-stamped”, where an impression is stamped into the leather resulting in a design, or “Gold-Stamped”, where gold has been applied into the groove of the stamping (such as the words “Holy Bible” might be stamped in gold on the spine). Sometimes gold-stamping on the spine is done on a separate square of colored leather, which is applied to the spine. This is called a “Label”.
  5. A “Psalter” is what the church used before modern hymnals were introduced in the 1700’s. It is essentially the Book of Psalms, with the wording restructured so as to be more conducive to singing aloud. Many Psalters have the five-line musical stave with notes above selected passages. The Psalter-Hymnal was frequently bound into ancient Bibles.
  6. The “Book of Common Prayer” is also frequently found in ancient Bibles. This is the Church of England’s official reference book for what to say at a wedding, funeral, baptism, communion, etc. Did you ever wonder where we got familiar passages like, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the presence of God and these witnesses to join the man and this woman in the bonds of holy matrimony.”? What is that little book that the pastor is reading from at these services? It’s the Common Prayer Book. Today they are published separately, but centuries ago, they were bound into some Bibles.
  7. The “Table of Names and Table of Things” are what we today refer to as a “concordance”. This is essentially an alphabetical index to the scripture, helping you to locate a passage based on what words appear in that passage. This is perhaps the one feature of ancient Bibles that is still commonly included in the back of Bibles printed today.
  8. If a Bible is listed as having “The Genealogy” present, this does NOT mean that it has some family’s personal genealogy in it. It means that it has the exquisitely beautiful and ornately illustrated three-dozen page-long “Family Tree of Man”. This wonderful feature traces every generation of the first four thousand years of mankind: from Adam and Eve… through Noah… through David… to Joseph, Mary, and Christ … without missing a single generation! It is a tragedy that this is no longer a part of Bibles printed today.
  9. If a Bible is listed as being “Ruled in Red”, this does NOT mean that somebody underlined favorite passages in red, nor does it mean that the words of Christ appear in red (a feature that did not exist in Bibles until the 1900’s). “Ruled in Red” means that a wealthy nobleman once owned the Bible, and hired an early scribe to use a straightedge and quill with red ink to do a decorative straight-line border around each page of the Bible! This was a very expensive and time-consuming task, made popular in the 1500’s by the wealthy.
  10. Many early Bibles had the New Testament printed one year before or after the Old Testament, and were bound two or three years after that. The “Colophon” Date is the printing date that appears on the last page of the New Testament (Rev. 22). Often, a Bible’s New Testament will have a date of printing on its Title Page that is a year or two earlier than the date on its Old Testament. When a Bible is listed as having multiple printing dates , it does NOT mean that it is a “hodge-podge” of different printings! It is ALL THE SAME PRINTING, it just used to take 2 to 3 years or more to print and bind a whole Bible.

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