Three times in the past month I was notified by long-time Civil War booksellers as to how each one had recently acquired a large collection of superb quality and rarity; collections that had been carefully built by their owners for decades. In each case, the seller stated that there were rarities included that they had not been able to offer for sale for thirty to forty years or longer.
While this is good news for serious collectors looking for particularly scarce wants, it also highlights the ongoing fact that book collectors who acquired the collecting bug during or after the Civil War centennial (when they were in their twenties or thirties) are now elderly and looking to sell. A key question is are there enough young collectors today to replace them?
Sadly, after talking with numerous booksellers over the past few years, I've concluded the answer is no, not by a long shot. Until the recent advent of the internet and such sites like Google Books and archive.org, many older books, such as 19th-century regimentals, were valuable not merely because of their scarcity, but also because of the information they contained; information that could not be found anywhere else. Now with the rise of these internet sites, that factor has been eliminated. Of course, ebooks have further hurt traditional book readership, not to mention a possible general decline in reading across the board.
Then there has been the rise of book search engines like ABE that bring book sellers and buyers together. These sites, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, have made millions of books available to the book buying public with just a few keystrokes, books that in the past were somewhat hidden in that they were only available through used and rare book stores or dealer's catalogs. An end result was the revelation that the vast, vast majority of titles were quite common, which thereby pushed prices down, down and down. Conversely, truly rare and scarce titles were shown to be just that, and their prices ratcheted upward. This phenomenem played out somewhat with Civil War books but was especially the case for 20th-century literature.
These old school dealers all seem to agree that the high water mark for Civil War book collecting was the 1990s. Since then, demand for anything less than the rarest of the rare has tapered off and prices have therefore fallen. One dealer told me how back in the day he could acquire a truly rare ACW title and have to decide among six or so collectors as to who he was going to offer it to, knowing that all would buy without hesitation. Not any more.
What this means is that an old book collecting adage is more true than ever: Collect what you truly love and you'll probably never lose money or sleep. And remember the three most important factors in determining the value of an old book are condition, condition, and condition. On the other hand, if you buy a book because of its perceived investment value, you'll probably lose out big time.