It’s enough to make an antique dealer wince — the sight of someone bringing in a newspaper with the story of Elvis Presley’s death, expecting to sell it for enough to retire early.
Another, said Kimball Sterling, proprietor of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., 125 W. Market St., “brought in by every little old lady or kids who found it in the attic,” is the paper with the coverage of the first moon landing. “It’s not even worth a dollar,” he said.
The key, it seems, for old newspapers to have much value, is that they be very old. “The cutoff point,” Sterling said, “is the War Between the States.”
Southern papers reporting on Civil War battles are worth “10 times more” than Northern papers, perhaps $40 or $50 apiece, he said. They are more scarce because most Southern newspapers didn’t have the capacity to print in great numbers. “They couldn’t publish enough of them” he said.
Buyers could be people doing research on their families, or amateur historians. “Northerners like to see what the South wrote about the Civil War,” he said.
Some collectors, particularly African Americans, seek papers of this era for their slave auction ads, Sterling said. He has had dealings with Julian Bond in this regard.
Some early Jonesborough newspapers, particularly The Emancipator, published by William “Parson” Brownlow, could sell for as much as $300 a copy, he said.
English newspapers of about the same period are worth considerably less. Sterling has a copy of the Albion from 1839, “which is not old for England,” which he said is not worth 50 cents.
“Value is very regional,” Sterlling said. Elvis papers might be worth more in Johnson City, where Presley performed not long before his death. Pearl Harbor papers would be more valuable in Hawaii.
On the other hand, he said, “the most expensive 5-cent paper ever sold” was the Chicago paper with the front-page story on Murderous Mary, the circus elephant hanged in Erwin for fatally trampling her handler.
“One stupid market,” Sterling said, is people looking for publications, Look Magazine, etc., published on their birthdays.
Documents, such as deeds and army releases, may have surprising value, he said, depending on who signed them. A document signed by Sam Houston might be worth $500. But he noted that Andrew Johnson’s name was often signed by a secretary.
Reproductions sometimes get the unwary overexcited. “Maybe three people a month think they’ve found the Declaration of Independence,” he said.
When it comes to books, there are also reasons to be wary. “Everybody thinks they have a first edition,” Sterling said, and first editions of some books might be worth $500-$1,000. “Gone With the Wind” might be such a book, though he noted that without the dust jacket it might be half the value.
Some textbooks published locally have a bit of value, he said, such as an 1880 arithmetic book published in Jonesborough.
A much different story, he said, is a very rare book published by a small press in Knoxville about 1850 that contains the Cherokee alphabet. It could be worth $300,000, he said.
Civil War soldiers’ diaries are valuable, Sterling said. He mentioned one with passages on prison camp experience that could be worth $20,000.
Old family Bibles are not monetarily valuable, he said, but sometimes they contain things. In one family Bible he found old Valentines worth $30-50 and a Stevengraph silk bookmark worth perhaps $500.
One of Sterling’s early coups occurred about 30 years ago when the B. Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University auctioned off 28 pallets of the congressman’s books. Though he was on a tight budget at the time, he bought them all, stored them in a shed and began to go through them. Among his finds were a signed Mark Twain and tickets to the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.
“Don’t sell it until you get somebody to look at it,” is Sterling’s advice to those with old documents and publications. “A reputable dealer is what you’ve got to have.”
Not that people always appreciate the dealer’s assessment. “It’s impossible to tell someone something they have is fake,” he said.
“Oral legend that a book belonged to Andrew Jackson is no good,” Sterling said. If all his auction clients’ claims were sound, “I think I’ve sold Andrew Johnson’s deathbed seven times.”