No Jacket Required? Book collector’s guide to identifying fake dust jackets

First editions, in fine condition, of modern classics such as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (New York, 1925) or Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (New York/London, 1930) can sell for tens of thousands of pounds.  Some collected books rarely appear on the market in genuinely fine condition and, when they do, the premium will be significant.  The level of that premium will be determined, almost entirely, on condition. A small nick on a single page can have a startling affect on value – reducing the price that collectors are prepared to pay by as much as half.  The absence of an original dust jacket however can have an even greater effect, knocking as much as 95 per cent off the value of the book.  For instance, in Guide to First Edition Prices, R B Russell estimates a jacketed first edition of The Maltese Falcon at £15,000.  The same book, in the same condition, but without a dust jacket is valued at £500.  The celebrated book collectors, Allen and Patricia Ahearn, quote the rule of the thumb that the absence of a dust jacket on fiction firsts from the early part of the 20th century reduces the value by 75 per cent.  More recent fiction firsts can generally be considered almost without value to the collector unless in a pristine dust jacket.

Reputable booksellers from time to time fit jacketless books with facsimiles for genuine and legitimate reasons.  Although such copies have no collectable value, they do serve a practical purpose in much the same way as the original jacket would have done – enhancing the appearance of the book, protecting it from dust and damage and possibility increasing its saleability: some collectors may prefer to have a facsimile unless and until they have the opportunity and the means to acquire the real thing. Reputable booksellers will of course identify facsimiles as such. Here at the Virtual Bookshelf, when fitting facsimile dust jackets, we print “facsimile dust jacket fitted by The Virtual Bookshelf” followed by the year on underside of each one and place a small label with the same message on the inside front flap.  Even so, we check with every potential buyer that they are aware that the jacket is a reproduction.  Other reputable dealers will have similar practices.

Given the dramatic difference between the prices that can be realised for collectable books with their original dust jacket and those without, it is unsurprising that some unscrupulous individuals will fit fake dust jackets and attempt to pass them off as genuine.  Equally, it possible that an honest but inexperienced dealer may legitimately acquire a first edition which has been fitted with a facsimile but may fail to spot it and hence sell it on as the genuine article.  However the misrepresentation has come about, the wise book collector will want to determine the status of the dust jacket before making a significant purchase.

The first step should be a visual inspection of the jacket.  Carefully remove the jacket from the book and remove any protective sleeve that may have been fitted.  Examine the underside closely. A dust jacket that is 50 or more years old is unlikely to be uniformly bright.  While looking at the underside, inspect the spine area and edges in particular.  Even a few handlings can cause uneven folds or creasing around the spine which can be emphasised by long-term shelving. If the underside looks fresh and crisp or the jacket resists curving over the spine you may be looking at a fake.

Next, inspect the printed surface of the jacket.  Look for any apparent creases, chips or tears.  Gently and lightly run a very clean finger over the affected area.  On an original jacket you will be able to feel any imperfections in the paper. On a fake, although the impression of any damage is likely to have been reproduced, the finish is likely to be smooth.  Similarly, examine the outer side for any apparent printing flaws, again running a clean, dry finger over the area.  Most printing flaws have one of three causes – an imperfection in the original paper, a variation in the amount of ink applied to a particular area or a foreign body coming between the roller and the paper. In each of these three circumstances you should be able to feel the imperfection as well as see it if the dust jacket is an original.

Few books will survive the shelving and re-shelving that takes place over the years without suffering any indentations to the edges of the jacket, particularly on the lower edge and at the head of the spine, so pay particular attention to these areas.  Perfection should be questioned. Exercise particular caution if the jacket appears slightly smaller than the book itself as some disreputable sellers will cut down the edges on fakes to remove the reproduced flaws.

The next step is to look at the book itself. Does it look like a volume that has been protected by a jacket for much of its life?  Fading to a cloth spine, or soiled or stained boards suggest that the book has been exposed, especially if there are no markings consistent with such flaws on the jacket itself.  Pay careful attention to the upper text block edge. Is it dusty, or dirty, or faded?  One might expect the upper edges of the inside of the dust jacket to be similarly affected if the two have always been together. Then look at the ends of the spine of the book.  If the spine tips are rubbed or bumped, it is unlikely that spine tips of the dust jacket would be perfect.  Inconsistencies between the condition of the book and the jacket should never be taken as conclusive proof of a fake jacket: it may be a genuine jacket from another copy.  It is nevertheless a useful indicator.

It is also worth comparing the colouring of the dust jacket to a known original, if one is available.  Even the best operators, using professional, well-calibrated scanners, have difficultly in matching colours precisely and in some cases the precise ink colours are no longer available.  Colour copies, effectively photographs, are harder to spot through visual comparisons.

On occasion a little research can help. The first step is to ascertain whether the first edition in question was actually issued with a dust jacket.  Experts argue over the precise date of the earliest jackets but they are known to have been used as far back as the1830. Very few books however were issued with dust jackets in the 19th century and surviving examples are extremely rare.  Dust jackets were briefly popular in the first decade of the 20th century but the austerity brought on by the first world war made them impractical.  Dust jackets did not become commonplace until the inter-war years.

It is also worth checking any relevant points of issue against a reliable reference work.  Author bibliographies (usually available from your local library or through the inter-library loan scheme) often give details of original dust jackets as well as the volume itself. For the most collectable books a general reference work such as the Ahearns’ Collected Books may suffice.  Returning to the example of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we learn from Collected Books that a first state dust jacket should carry a lower case ‘j’ in ‘jay Gatsby’ on the 14th line of the blurb but that on most copies the printer’s error has been hand-corrected or over-stamped with a capital ‘J’.  Such alterations should be easy to see and feel on an original but probably only seen on a fake.  Of course, if there’s no lower case ‘j’, you are not looking at a first state jacket at all.

If, after all your inspections and research – and careful quizzing of the seller – you still have doubts, splash out a tenner or so on a hand-held microscope.  30x magnification is more than enough.  Modern day printing tends to shoot – or ‘jet’- ink onto paper. Solid areas of ‘jetted’ ink appear relatively uniform under the microscope.  In contrast, the majority of dust jackets from the early part of the 20th century will have be produced by offset lithography which involves pressing the ink onto the surface of the paper, using a certain amount of pressure.  As a result the ink is pushed to the edges of the colour area where it gathers more thickly. Single colour areas printed by offset lithography therefore appear to have more strongly defined edges than those produced digitally.  Similarly the heavier patches of ink at the edges are less pronounced on later colour copies. Take a few moments to examine some older jackets at home and compare them to modern digital printing and you’ll soon get the hang of it.

I first wrote this wee article on identifying fake dust jackets back in 2005, when it appeared in a newsletters from the secondhand booksellers’ co-operative, ibooknet, but the information remains valid so I thought it worth reproducing.  You can see the original version here.

Note added July 2015: My preference is always to use the term dust jacket because I quite like the irony that in fact those paper wraps around the casing of a book do very little to protect the book from dust, but they are also commonly referred to a wrappers or dust wrappers, or even dustjacket.  Be careful though, in book collecting terms, wraps or wrappers can mean a different thing.  For a full explanation of terms, see our book description glossary.

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