Book Appraisal: The Historical Bookplate

bookplateHere is a test: open a really old book found in almost any public library or on the musty-dusty shelves of an antiquarian bookstore, and note what hits your eyes immediately on the inside front cover, even before you scan the title page. Chances are it will be a pasted-in, colorfully decorative or starkly simple bookplate with a name, a coat of arms, or a reminder that ‘This book is the property of…’ or even more direct, ‘Return this book to…’ as if it is contraband under penalty of law.

Those warning signs aside, the bookplates that are most interesting are those that indicate the provenance of ownership. Granted, seldom will you recognize the name or the family coat-of-arms, but that is not where the importance lies.

Bookplates in really old books, say 17th century, most likely came to America via a Dutch or English settler. Imagine the long voyage those books endured under the most adverse environmental conditions.

Based on an unscientific survey of the coat-of-arms I have seen, it appears as if the majority of the books most likely came from England. In our book locales there seems to be very few plates with arms of other nationalities. The use of bookplates never really became widespread, except among the descendants of the colonists, because it was mostly confined to a certain social strata like the medical, legal, clergy, and the academics; interestingly, bookplates were not the sole province of men; educated women with literary interests and backgrounds also used plates.

Most bookplates of that era were cut on copper, but there were also plates from woodcuts and particularly silver which was an easier metal to work with; steel came along later. The beauty of these older plates is that the armorial designs and heraldry tells much about the family ancestry behind the ownership; it is regarded as a true reporting of the provenance which in turn can be an important contributing factor in market value. Once you are able to trace ancestral ownership or attribution of any antique or collectible, the item takes on a whole new relationship to value. It is not improbable that the value of a mildly interesting/valuable book suddenly moves up in market value because of the enhancement through a well-researched bookplate.

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