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Guide to Buying Antique Bibles

Approximate Reading Time, 7 minutes.

Looking to purchase an antique Bible? Maybe you would like to buy an early King James Family Bible to keep as an heirloom, and to be passed down for generations. A Geneva Bible would be a good choice to add to any collection. You may be excited about building your own antique Bible collection of your own. Some are unsure where to begin or kind of intimidated by the terminology involved. You need a Bible Buying Guide!

The Antique Bible Buying guide below will provide you with an overview of the technical terms involved in the antiquarian book trade and also share various factors that contribute to the price of an antique Bible.

Some Factors that Contribute to the Price of an Antique Bible

Bible sizes: Folio, Quarto, & Octavo

Size: The majority of antique Bibles are quarto size. Folio size Bibles are worth more than quarto size Bibles. Folio Bibles are easier to read, frequently contain more illustrations, and are sought after by collectors.

Extra Features: The number of extra features (Book of Common Prayer, Calendar, Genealogies, Psalter, etc.) adds more value to a Bible.

Collation: The completeness of the Bible text is very important. Any missing leaves from the Biblical text can significantly alter its value and should be clearly noted in any description. The general title page and the New Testament title page are also very valuable.

Provenance: A Bible that has proof of ownership of a famous person, an important Bible collector, or a royal family member will increase in value. Bookplates of famous people or signatures will add to its value as well.

Margins: A Bible with wide margins is worth more than a Bible that has been trimmed.

Font: The font size or type generally does not impact the price of the Bible, unless a particular font adds rarity to an edition.

Early Edition: An older Bible is worth more than a more recent one. A first printing or an early printing can be worth far more than a later edition.

Woodcuts: The number and types of illustrations in a Bible can add to its price. Bibles with a full set of Geneva illustrations and maps are worth more than Bibles that do not contain these woodcuts.

Condition: Perhaps we saved the best for last. Condition has the most significant impact on price. A Bible with soiling, damp stain, tearing, and extensive writing will be less valuable than a Bible with clean, crisp pages and wide margins. A Bible with cracked hinges or loose covers will be worth less also.

Bible Buying Guide
Red-ruled Bible

Red-ruled: Bibles that are ruled in red are more beautiful in appearance and more desirable. Only a small fraction of Bibles (around 10%) contain red ruling.

Beautiful rebound 1612 Bible

Binding does not have a large impact on the price of an antique Bible since many have been rebound in the past. A fresh contemporary binding, similar to the original, with blind stamping or a gold gilt decorative design can increase the price of the Bible slightly.

Terms & Features

Sizes: Books are made out of large sheets of paper. For a folio book (2°), these sheets were folded in half resulting in two leaves or four pages. For a quarto book (4°), these sheets were folded in half twice, resulting in four leaves or eight pages. For an octavo book (8°), these sheets were folded in half three times, resulting in eight leaves or sixteen pages. Folio Bibles are the largest size (11-20” tall), followed by quarto Bibles (8-10.75” tall), and octavo Bibles (6-7.5” tall).

Collation: Refers to the manner and order in which leaves are gathered into signatures and bound into one book. Collation enables us to determine whether any pages are missing and allows us to determine which version or edition of the book we have before us. Bible dealers and collectors use catalogues such as A.S. Herbert’s Historical catologue of Printed Bibles or T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule’s Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society to date and list Bibles accurately.

Bible Buying Guide
The Book of Common Prayer

Extra Features: A variety of additional works that were frequently bound in with the Bible text. One example is the Illustrated Genealogies by J.S. Speed. This is a pictorial representation of thirty four pages of the lineage from Adam to Christ with an optional double page map of the promised land. Another is the Book of Common Prayer. This is the Anglican church’s guide to communion, baptism, weddings, and other ceremonies. A third example is a musical/metrical Psalter, which a book of Psalms with wording conducive to congregational singing and often includes musical bars. Sometimes a Calendar would be included which would contain daily Scripture readings and important holy days.

Provenance: There are times when the ownership of a Bible can be traced back through a famous person. The provenance of a book details the ownership record of a Bible as it is passed through certain families, collectors, or members of the royal family.

Woodcuts: Illustrations were created by special craftsmen who would carve an image onto a block of wood. The non-printed parts would be carved out, leaving the desired image level with the block. Ink was then added to the block and pressed onto the page leaving the desired woodcut illustration.

Bible Buying Guide
Two Woodcuts, one depicting the menorah.

Red-ruled: For a small percentage of Bibles, the borders and important parts of the text would be marked using a straightedge and red ink. Each page would be outlined by a scribe after printing, which was a very detail oriented and time consuming practice. Red-ruling makes the text stand out, easier to read, and was a practice used by the very wealthy of the time.

Margins: The perimeter of the page or the text block of the book sees frequent wear, soiling, and some tearing. Bibles were originally printed with wide margins and these were sometimes trimmed down when a book was rebound in order to provide a more pleasing appearance.

Illumination: The process in which printed text is supplemented with borders and decorative initials. In this complex and costly process, gold leaf and various colors are applied to make a very attractive look.

Hand-Colored Illustrations: Woodcut illustrations were sometimes enhanced by adding color. This process was completed by hand, applying color to an already printed black and white plate. The coloring was frequently done at the time of publication, according to the printer’s orders.

Font: Antique Bibles are presented in a typeface style of either a Black Letter font or a Roman font. The black letter font is a calligraphy type Gothic font that is beautiful in appearance whereas the Roman font is easier to read, and more akin to the font currently in use today.

Binding: Antique Bibles are always hardcover and can be bound in a variety of different leathers over wooden boards, each providing a slightly different texture and color. The binding of book is not expected to last more than around two hundred years. Many Bibles have therefore been rebound or re-backed some time before. The original boards are frequently retained and reused whenever a rebinding takes place. It is rare to find a Bible in its original binding, and even more rare to find the original metal hardware that accompanied it.




Bible Buying Guide

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