2009-05-21 / News

Appraiser of rare books to speak at library tonight

By Eileen M. Daly

Ken Gloss, owner of Brattle Book Shop, stands among his treasure trove of books. Ken Gloss, owner of Brattle Book Shop, stands among his treasure trove of books. If you've got some old books you have been sitting on for some time, wondering if they might be worth something, now is the time to find out.

Kenneth Gloss, proprietor of the nationally known Brattle Book Shop, and frequent guest on the PBS television show "Antiques Roadshow," will speak about "Is there value in your old and rare books?" at the Jamestown library tonight, Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m. Following the talk, Gloss will appraise books brought in by audience members.

"New England homes are treasure troves for old and rare books that have increased in value over the years," Gloss said. "We invite the public to bring in any volumes they want to know about to the lecture for a free verbal appraisal."

Gloss isn't kidding when he refers to treasure-troves. Over the years, he has stumbled upon some truly amazing finds. "About eight years ago, just after 9/11, a family was clearing out their mother-inlaw's estate and they came upon a trunk in the attic. At the bottom of the trunk they found a packet of papers. The papers ended up being letters written by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Monroe," he said.

One of the letters, written by Jefferson, made reference to how traitors and terrorists should be treated," Gloss said. "During that time, there were many Americans who would have preferred not to have won the revolution and who were supporting Britain. These were the traitors and terrorists Jefferson was referring to." And, how did Thomas Jefferson feel terrorists should be treated? According to Gloss, Jefferson said in the letter, "They should be given the full protection of the law and nothing else."

On another occasion, someone with a damaged copy of "Catcher in the Rye" asked Gloss for an appraisal. Having learned not to make assumptions, Gloss avoided the knee-jerk reaction of presuming the copy to be worth very little, even if it was a first edition, due to the condition. Instead, Gloss said, he carefully examined the book and found that it included a long inscription from J.D. Salinger himself. Rather than being worthless, he said, the book was worth $25,000 to $35,000.

Along those same lines, a woman once approached Gloss with some of her grandmother's school papers. "You might assume someone's old English papers wouldn't be worth anything," Gloss said, "but these papers had comments and notations all over the margins and the woman's teacher happened to be Robert Frost."

Yet another amazing find occurred, Gloss said, when an older woman approached him with "some papers." It turns out that those papers contained a copy of the Declaration of Independence. "It wasn't the original copy," Gloss said. "It was written a few weeks later, but it was still worth a quarter of a million dollars."

According to Gloss, 99 percent of appraisals can be done on the spot. If it is a really complicated case, a first edition of Huck Finn, for example, which has to be authenticated by careful inspection of various misspellings and line breaks, "I may need to look at my reference materials," Gloss said. If that is the case, though, Gloss said he would take notes and then have the owner contact him by telephone.

Gloss loves old books and he loves his job. "I often feel a bit like Jim Hawkins on Treasure Island," he said. He learned the trade from his father, who preceded him as the owner of the Brattle Book Store. "I grew up around books and learned from doing it," Gloss said. He did admit, though, that, "You can never know it all." There are simply too many books to know everything about every book, he said. When he is unsure of something, he said, he consults with colleagues or reference books on the subject.

Gloss acknowledges that there are sometimes forgeries, but "they tend to be very simple, a signature forged in a book, for example." Forging an entire document is often much too difficult, he said.

There are many methods of authenticating the real deal. Materials are examined to determine whether or not they make sense historically, whether the paper and print is consistent with the time period, along with very specific concerns such as the misspellings referred to in the first edition of Huck Finn, Gloss said.

Gloss is an expert in the field and he is eager to explore your treasure chest of old books. You never know, you might be holding on to the next big find. So grab your books and head on over to the library tonight to find out if your old books are really treasures in disguise.

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