by Alice Kaufman
This year's edition of "The Saveur 100" (Saveur magazine's 100 favorite foods, restaurants, recipes, etc.) places a rather dog-eared copy of The Eating-In-Bed Cookbook (Macmillan, 1962) at No. 49. A "facsimile copy" of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book is for sale in the Restoration Hardware catalog for $27.50. A first edition of the same book published in 1950 (hardback, excellent condition) is available on The Cooks Books for $75. And hundreds of cookbooks dating from the 1950s, 1960s, and later are available on the major auction sites, ranging in price from less than $10 to $40. What's going on here? Classic cookbooks of yesteryear are in real demand by book collectors and cooking enthusiasts, and a growing opportunity for book resellers.
Rare Recipes Collectible cookbooks fall into two categories--the very old, rare, and expensive, and the just plain nostalgic. San Francisco rare book dealer Jeffrey Thomas sells the former. His favorite books in "the field of cookery" are those that are visually appealing, of social and historical significance, and perhaps even useful to a discerning epicurean. Not surprisingly, examples that meet these criteria also tend to fetch the highest prices. Take his sale of a second American edition of the classic cookbook from England The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, which sold for about $750.
"She wrote the first cookbooks that were well-organized in the modern sense," said Thomas, explaining their relevance in the history of cookery. "She wrote down which ingredients to use in detail. Before her, it was 'use a pinch of this, a bit of that.'"
According to Thomas, his last sale of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy especially interested buyers because it was the American edition of the 1747 original, featuring recipes with American ingredients, such as maple syrup. "That gave it that special magic," said Thomas. (For cooks more interested in period recipes than period books, reprints of Mrs. Glasse's classic can be found at Amazon.com. A soft cover version of the American edition costs around $10.)
Other notable Thomas sales include a first printing of the popular Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) that sold for about $1,000, and What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (San Francisco, 1881) that fetched almost $2,000. "Mrs. Fisher was black, illiterate, and apparently a hell of a cook," said Thomas. "It is the first cookbook written by a black person, an early San Francisco book, and very rare."
Mom's Cookbook Sue Jimenez, the proprietor of The Vintage Cookbookery, sells another kind of cookbook to a very different market. Many of her customers, she said, "are trying to recapture a bygone era, usually the era of their own childhood, searching out recipes their mothers used."
With that in mind, Jimenez rarely sells items from the 19th century and earlier. Most of her collectible cookbooks are mass-produced pieces from the last 50 to 75 years, selling in the $20 to $100 range. Also of note, many of her items were originally produced by food, appliance, and dining companies as promotional pieces, such as Jell-O's What Mrs. Dewey Did With New Jell-0, published in the '50s, or the Royal Baking Powder Co.'s Royal Baker and Pastry Cook, written by the chefs of the New York Cooking School.
Do Modern Cookbooks Sell? Beyond those nostalgic cookbooks from the '50s and earlier, Jimenez says some modern cookbooks can sell well, too. She has had success with modern cookbooks by recognizable authors and celebrities. Prices for Craig Claiborne cookbooks, for instance, have increased 20 percent since his death over a year ago, and sell for from $10 to $30. Les Diners de Gala by Salvador Dali (1973) also is a perennial seller for Jimenez at $200. ("It's like an art book with recipes," said Jimenez. "Unfortunately, it's difficult to find one in good condition.") Even a 1983 Yul Brynner cookbook, "reflecting his Gypsy-Swiss-Mongolian heritage," listed for $20 at The Cooks Books.
"Chef-quality" books that are "very detailed" are "very sought after," as well, says Jimenez. A good example is La Methode by famed French chef and PBS star Jacques Pepin. In January, a copy sold on eBay for $82, according to Jimenez. On a related note, Jimenez says signed cookbooks (of any age) by Julia Child also perform well.
Finally, Jimenez says the media can have a real bearing on the popularity and price of a particular cookbook. "If a book is mentioned in the newspaper or a magazine, everyone wants it," said Jimenez. A recent Los Angeles Times article on the turn-of-the-century cookbook The Epicurean, by the one-time chef of New York City's Delmonico's, bore out that fact. "That sells for about $200," said Jimenez, "and everyone called."
Recipe for Collecting Steady is probably the right word for the prices of both rare and collectible cookbooks. "The price for any good book goes up slowly," said Thomas. "Cookbook prices don't go down, but they aren't shooting up either, like the first edition of the first Harry Potter book, which has been offered for 5,000 pounds."
If you are in the market for collectible cookbooks of the Jimenez variety, online auction sites are, of course, an excellent source, as are the many vintage cookbook sites on the Web. For best results, search for "vintage cookbooks" and "collectible cookbooks," as well as specific title, author, or applicable manufacturer. Flea markets and garage sales are probably the best bet when buying collectible cookbooks for resale. For more rare, historical cookbooks, it's advisable to consult reputable antiquarian book dealers in your area or on the Internet. Also, follow the rare book auctions (offline and online) at the likes of Sotheby's, Butterfields, Swan Galleries, Christie's, Phillips, eBay Premiere, ewolfs.com, and others.
When readying your first collectible cookbook listing for online auction, be certain to specify the author, title, publication date (and date of edition, if applicable), condition (important no matter who is buying), and any special circumstances (signed, American edition, etc.). A picture of the book and, if possible, of a mouth-watering dish from the book will make your book seem even more appetizing.
Alice Kaufman is a San Francisco-based writer who writes frequently on antiques and collectibles.