A New Look at Antique Books


The subject of vellum books came up the other day, and then the subject of book collecting in general. I thought I’d take a deeper dive into the subject for those of you who missed the first discussion. – M.S.


There are a lot of ways to cover a wall, and for sheer interest, nothing beats a bookshelf — as long as it’s displaying something more interesting than Danielle Steele novels. To really pull off a nice antique bookcase, you’re going to want some beautiful bindings, whether you read the books or not.

Antique books are a great addition to any room, and there are basically three ways to go about collecting them.

  1. By value.

There are a lot of rare books out there — but not very many, or else they wouldn’t be rare! — and they can go for lots of money. People collect them, either as prizes in their personal collections or to turn around and sell again. But the days are probably long gone when you could find a rare book at an estate sale or in a dusty bookshop, because the internet is full of places to trade and sell books and the market is very transparent. If you find what you think is a rare book, chances are you can find out how many other copies are available, a rough idea of the value, and contact information for someone who wants to buy it, all within a few minutes on the web. In short, if you’re trying to get rich flipping books, you should consider real estate instead — the profit margins are higher.

  1. By subject matter.

If you have an interest in botany, you may enjoy collecting books on the subject (to go with your gallery wall of botanical prints). The same goes for photography, or sailing, or anything else that excites you. If you want a cohesive look to your bookshelf, you can choose to limit your collection to a few decades of publishing, so the basic style of the books will be similar. If you don’t want a whole barrister’s case full of books, you might do well to limit your collection to a few prime examples, which you’ll be able to get on the internet from people that collect books by method #1.

Of course, the common themes of most book collections is “Things I have read.” It makes sense to have books around for reference, or as trophies from your literary lifestyle. If this is a route you want to take, then you should be reading hardcover books, or at least swapping out your favorite paperbacks for a sturdier version before you put them on display. (It is possible to have your Robert Ludlum bound in leather.)

  1. By design.

I was once in a bookstore shopping for books with pretty spines in the days before the internet, and I heard the bookseller talking to a customer about the most horrible thing he’d ever witnessed. It seems that earlier in the week, someone had come in and picked out dozens of books from the shelves and stacked them up on the counter. The bookseller said, “It was one of my biggest sales ever, but then I noticed they were all RED books, and that the buyer was just some designer who was going to put those books in the library of some mansion where they would never be read.”

Maybe this was a crime against literature back in the day, but all those people who collect by method #1 have made sure it isn’t one anymore. If you’re picking by size or color or binding style from a bookstore or antique shop, you can bet that someone has gone through them to make sure there are no rarities in the pile. Maybe those books won’t be read, but it’s not like you’re hiding the wisdom of the ages on a high shelf. Those books either went up for auction or out on eBay long ago.

It was my love of beautiful books that got me into collecting the white vellum books in my collection. I won’t lie, for a while I had a bit of a problem. I just couldn’t get enough of them!

Vellum is parchment made from calfskin (there’s a reason the word sounds sort of like “veal”) which is scraped, then wet and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tension. There are vellum manuscripts dating back to B.C., but I love it when it’s used in traditional bookbinding. It was common in the 16th and 17th centuries, and again in the late 19th.

The first time I saw a vellum book was through the window of a black cab in London. We were going down the street and in a beautiful display window of an antique shop were these white books. I had the driver stop, and ran in to see what they were and ask about purchasing. The shopkeeper said they were not for sale, which of course made me want them even more.

So started my quest for vellum books. We collected them here and there in London and in Rome, in flea markets, antique shows, and antique shops. Some are big and some are small. Some are older than others, some are whiter than others. Inside the text is usually Latin, which I can’t read.

I’ve sold a few recently and have a few more listed in my store, but I keep a handful in my own library to remind me of that cab ride that sent me on a multi-year, multi-country treasure hunt.

How will you start your antique book collection?


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  • I love this! We found a vintage book about animals from the 1920s. My husband careful cut out the illustrations, framed them, and turned it into art for our girls’ room that is an elevated look for kids. Thanks for reminding us what a style find this can be inside and out!

  • Your writing style says a lot about who you are and in my opinion I’d have to say you’re insightful. This article reflects many of my own thoughts on this subject. You are truly unique.