Rare Books in German: Identification and Value Guide

Updated November 19, 2021
Old German Book

Rare books in German are popular among both collectors of literature and history for their connections to the European continent during the trials and tribulations of the past. Libraries and museums frequently feature large collections of rare German books in their exhibits for the public to see, but if you want to be a step closer to this history, then it might be time for you to start collecting your own historic texts.

Tips for Collecting Antique and Vintage German Books

While there's a surprising abundance of German books from centuries ago to have survived into the 21st century, it's not so easy to figure out which of them are worth money and which could be turned into kindling. So, the next time you stumble across an old German title in your used bookstore and you're wondering if you've got a gold mine in your hands, use these guiding principals for valuable books to determine if it's worth investing in.

Engraving depicting the city of Nuremberg
  • Famous authors - Texts from famous German authors, like Goethe, can be pretty valuable. You can always do a quick check on a title and see if it's one of the author's more prominent works, as these will be some of the most valuable out of their literary canon.
  • Religious texts - The German region has deep historic roots in religious turmoil, dating back to the Protestant Reformation. Thus, a lot of significant religious texts were first published (and perhaps only published) in German/Germany. So, old documents relating to theology from this region are highly collectible.
  • 16th and 17th century texts - In spite of Gutenberg's printing press, the mass production of books and widespread increase of literary rates didn't happen for many centuries after the invention's unveiling. This means that texts from the 16th and 17th centuries are rather rare, and to find substantial volumes in pristine conditions is unusual and can fetch a lot of money at auction.
  • First editions - As always, first editions of books will bring more at auction than a later reprint. So, you should always check the publication date of a copy you're interested in to see if it's worth the potential price.

Costs of Collecting Rare German Books

Unfortunately for avid collectors, there's no easily accessible reference for rare German titles. This means that you'll sometimes find yourself jumping into auctions blind, especially if you don't understand German and don't have information to provide you with some context. However, you can generally assume that the most valuable titles, which are worth anywhere between a thousand to a couple hundred thousand dollars, come from the 16th and 17th centuries. In comparison, more modern texts from the 19th century and later are worth the lower hundreds on average.

leather bound books

Here are a few recently sold or listed antique German books on eBay that display these types of prices.

Places to Find Rare German Books

There's a surprisingly large number of places to find German titles and texts online, and here are two of the best:

  • William Dailey Rare Books - This website has an amazing collection of rare German books available for purchase. Located in Los Angeles, California, you're sure to find something here that you can't live without for your personal collection.
  • eBay - Of course, eBay is a great place to start if you're looking for any German title to add to your collection. While they don't have the best mechanism for searching for your works, they do have a lot of titles available.
Antiquarian Book Fair in Stuttgart

University Collections to Peruse

Several universities also have outstanding collections of rare books originally in German and translated into German s well. Here are a few that you may enjoy.

Yale University

Yale University started its collection of German literature in 1913 when it was encouraged by a large portion of its faculty who'd received their education in Germany. By 1928, the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library housed over 20,000 rare German books, prints, manuscripts, and more spanning the 17th through the 19th century. The exhibition area is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, and Wednesday 10:00 am to 4:30 pm. For more information, you can visit their website.

University of California, Berkley

The library at the University of California at Berkley houses a collection of German texts, which includes the Bancroft library's Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft collection. This collection contains the works of Germany's first literary society and can be purchased from Brill Publishers for you to add to your own collection of rare German books.

University of Cincinnati

The Blegen Library, located in the Archives and Rare Books Library of the university, houses one of the largest German-American history collections in the United States. The collection includes newspapers, manuscripts, and literature pertaining to German-American history. To view the library's collection, it's necessary to make an appointment and you can do so by contacting the library staff at 513-556-1959.

Pennsylvania State University

At the Penn State Special Collections Library, collectors of rare German books can find the Allison-Shelley Collection of German literature. This collection features the Saur Bible, the first German language Bible printed in America.

Duke University

Duke's West European Collection includes The Jantz Collection, which consists of 3500 titles of German Baroque literature among other German texts as well.

Wellesley College

Located in Wellesly, Massachusetts, the Margaret Clapp Library's Special Collections department contains various rare books including several early German Bibles as well as tracts written by Martin Luther.

Take a Page out of These Rare Books

If you're a bit of a bibliophile, you don't have to limit your collection to only include German titles; rather, you can add all sorts of fun and interesting books. For example, you could pick up a few rare books by J. R. R. Tolkien, ones pertaining to French Literature, or a couple of antique religious books. Whatever your preference, all of these should give you that bookstore-buying fix, if only for a little while.

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Rare Books in German: Identification and Value Guide