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A Guide to Buying and Collecting Signed Books by Leah Dobrinska

A signed book is a sought-after collectible for a bibliophile, and it can add exponential value to a book collection. Whether you're just beginning your collection or are a seasoned collector, what should you consider when looking for and purchasing a signed book? What's the best "type" of signature?
Published on 12 Dec. 2016
A signed book is a sought-after collectible for a bibliophile, and it can add exponential value to a book collection. Whether you’re just beginning your collection or are a seasoned collector, what should you consider when looking for and purchasing a signed book? What’s the best “type” of signature? Below is a brief guide to collecting signed books, including a glossary of signed book terms and a guide to finding signed books.

Signed Book Glossary

Dedication Copy
A dedication copy is a book signed by the author on the dedication page and inscribed with a note to the person to whom the book is also dedicated. A dedication copy is perhaps the most highly sought after of all signed books—and often the most valuable—as usually there is only one of these books in existence for any particular title.

Association Copy
An association copy is a book signed by the author and inscribed with a note to someone significant. This person is either significant to the author or significant in popular culture. For example, a scarce association copy of Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta (The Open Work) is one that is inscribed and signed by Eco to his bibliographer, James Contursi. Other examples include inscriptions to a notable close friend of the author, a president, another author, etc.

Presentation Copy
A presentation copy is a book inscribed by the author and distributed to its recipient as a gift from said author. Numerous types of presentation copies exist, and a discerning collector should note that some presentation copies hold more value than others. Naturally, if a book is signed and inscribed by the author and dated close to the publication date of the book, it will carry more weight than if all variables were the same but the book wasn’t dated, or it was dated much farther from the publication date.

Inscribed Copy
An inscribed copy is the term used for a book with an author’s signatureand a general inscription. For example, books signed at an author’s book signing event or signed in bulk by the author (and including a notation such as “With warm regards,” or “This is the favorite of all my books,”) are considered inscribed copies. Many collectors confuse a presentation copy and an inscribed copy or will use the term presentation copy when they are really discussing an inscribed copy. The key difference is the author’s intent to give a presentation copy as a gift, as opposed to simply inscribing a book, say, at the request of a fan.

A plain signed copy is one that is signed by the author and doesn’t include any other inscription or notation on the page.

Autopen Signed
An autopen signed book often comes into the equation when discussing books signed by presidents or other famous individuals who have in their possession an autopen, or a machine which automatically signs the president’s or dignitary’s name with a mechanical arm-like feature. Autopen signatures do not carry value.

Where to Buy Signed Books?

Once you know you’re on the hunt for a certain signed book, or if you are just browsing to see what you may find, where should you look? Of course you can try your luck at rare book stores the world over. In fact, we’ve run a series on numerous places around the globe to stop in and see if you can find a hidden signed book treasure.

You can also find signed books at rare book auctions and, of course, book fairs. However, in this day and age, it’s likely that you’re looking primarily online for your rare book finds. The online book buying and selling world is both a blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because of the sheer number of books at your disposal, and the unprecedented access to books from around the world right from the comforts of home. That same access also makes it a curse because it is much more difficult to verify the authenticity of a signed book with the myriad of book sellers and book selling sites on the web today. It would be tragic to spend a large sum on what you thought to be a valuable, signed copy of a book you are looking for, only to later find that the signature was forged.

While it’s nearly impossible to guarantee the signatures and inscriptions on books unless you saw the author make them, there are ways to protect yourself from forgeries. How can you ensure you’re not duped? Browse and buy only from accredited sources. The most highly regarded bookselling agencies are the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) and the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA). To become members of either organization is a rigorous and time consuming process. You can be assured that book sellers who have gained the stamp of approval of the ILAB and the ABAA are honest in their book dealings.

What’s better, signed or inscribed?

To verify a signature and inscription's authenticity, scholars will study numerous other handwriting samples from the author. As a result, some may argue that a signature plus an inscription is more valuable than just a isolated signature because it allows for more comparison to other samples to ensure its authenticity. This is especially true for the signatures of those who have passed away. Others maintain that a signed-only book is worth more than say an inscribed copy signed on an author’s book tour “To Aaron, With warmest regards, Stephen King”. Why? Because if anyone other than “Aaron,” takes possession of that book, it becomes much less personal and an almost throw-away inscription.

Many find the happy medium and say that it’s better to collect books that are signed only if the author is alive and the signature is more-easily verified, and on the flip side, if the author is deceased, then going for copies with signatures and inscriptions helps to ensure authenticity. Of course it’s important to keep in mind that a seemingly menial copy of a book inscribed “To Aaron, With warmest regards, Stephen King” may not be so insignificant if Aaron grows up to become King’s biographer, or his protégé, or the owner of one of the largest Stephen King libraries in the world. Simply put, we cannot know what will acquire value as it ages. And to many, the type of signature/inscription they prefer to collect is just that: a matter of personal preference.

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