Book collection


Jennifer Short, JD June 6, 2023

A person's belongings—such as jewelry, furniture, pictures, and books—sometimes slip through the cracks of their estate plan. While certain valuables may be accounted for in a will, it's up to the family to decide what to do with the rest.

Today, we're going to focus on books and similar collector's items.

The family’s first inclination when encountering piles of old books might be to donate them to charity or throw them away. But getting rid of a book collection without first assessing it could be a mistake.

Most books have little to no market value but other's are rare collectors items. A book can also contain hidden sentimental value within it's pages.

What to Do with Books Left in the Residuary Estate

Even the most thorough planners leave personal property unaccounted for in their will. What remains after specific items have been distributed to loved ones and final expenses have been paid makes up the residuary estate.

A residuary estate can contain newly acquired accounts and property that were not accounted for in the latest draft of an estate plan. It can also contain overlooked items that seem to have nothing more than sentimental value.

For example, an old family Bible might be left to a close family member in the will. The other books on the shelf, though, may be left in no-man’s-land.

Most wills and trusts contain language specifying the distribution of the residuary estate. The language might state, for example, that any residuary estate goes to a specific family member, into a trust, or to charity.

If the residuary language is general, such as “all my personal belongings are to be divided equally among my children,” it is likely up to the children to decide what to do. Going through a loved one’s collection once they're gone can be an emotionally difficult process. Deciding what to do with the stuff you don't want to keep can be just as challenging.

Decluttering experts recommend sorting items into four piles: keep, trash, sell, and donate. Items that aren't kept can be sold in an estate sale. Estate sales are sometimes best left to companies that specialize in them. These companies are knowledgeable about pricing items for sale and can take care of everything so you have time to grieve. It's important to ask for the company's price up front. You'll also want to get an estimate of your items. You don't want to end up paying for the estate sale out of pocket if not enough items sell.

Assessing a Book’s (Monetary) Value

An estate sale company may advise the family that a book in the collection is valuable. Maybe the book is old, written by a well-known author, or has a distinguishing physical characteristic. If there are striking illustrations, or the book is signed by the author, it could be worth some money.

Age alone doesn't make a book valuable. Nor does rarity. Millions of books have been published since the invention of the printing press. Unfortunately, most are about as valuable as the paper they're printed on. Only a tiny fraction have real value to book buyers.

According to Nelson Rare Books, three elements determine a book's value:

  • rarity,

  • scarcity, and

  • condition

However, a book that has some or all of these characteristics is not necessarily worth a lot of money. Some books are old, scarce, and in fine condition but still not valuable. A book could have many copies in print, but have another distinguishing characteristic, such as a signature, inscription, or notes from a prior owner that makes it rare.

First editions of books tend to have higher value than later editions. However, a book that isn't demand won't have a strong resale market.

Among first editions, some books stand out as true collectible gems. The books on this Reader’s Digest list can fetch anywhere from $50,000 to $5 million or more. To gauge the value of a book, you can visit websites such as or AbeBooks.

Keep in mind that even if a book appears to have a strong market, it could take months or even years to find the right buyer. Ultimately, the value of a book is whatever someone is willing to pay for it—not what an online resource says it is worth.

Check Books for Hidden Surprises

A book without intrinsic value can have something valuable concealed within its pages. Some hidden treasures found in old books include a lock of George Washington’s hair, an original C.S. Lewis letter, a map of Middle Earth annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a winning lottery ticket worth $750,000. Others have found cash, collector’s items, and other surprises between the pages.

The artifacts left behind in books might lack financial value but have subjective value to family members. Items like handwritten notes, photographs, coupons, receipts, and tickets can be placed in a family scrapbook as a unique and tangible reminder of a loved one. For inspiration, check out this project started by a librarian at the Oakland Public Library for collecting forgotten mementos in books.

Keeping Books for a Personal Collection

The typical US household has more than one hundred books. The odds of any one book being valuable enough to sell to a collector are very low, but the odds of any one book have sentimental value are very high.

Some books have been in a family for generations and can continue to be passed on. Maybe a mother owned a copy of The Night Before Christmas and read it each Christmas Eve to her children. One of the children might want to keep the book and carry on the tradition, eventually passing the book on to their own kids.

A book could also have an inscription that adds sentimental value. Or it might simply be a favorite book of a loved one that they always had near. There are countless reasons why a book might take on emotional dimensions. If it resonates with just one person, this alone gives it significance.

If you have any books like these in your own house, make sure to account for them in your will.

Gifting Collections and Other Personal Items in an Estate Plan

Gaps in an estate plan can lead to conflict among surviving family members. Don't be the person that only focuses on big-ticket items like houses, cars, bank accounts, and investments. Deciding who is entitled to personal mementos can be an underestimated source of contention.

Only verbally promising personal property to a loved one won't pass legal muster. To avoid conflicts over personal belongings, consider incorporating them into an estate plan. This can be accomplished with a document called a personal property memorandum. Personal items can also be given away while a person is alive, leaving no doubt about ownership.

Small estate planning details can make a big difference. The more specific you can be in your estate plan, the better. To ensure that you're not leaving out anything important, contact our office to schedule an appointment. Call 614-408-0529.

Want to learn about how all the different estate planning documents work together? Download our Consumer's Guide to Estate Planning in Ohio here.