Book’s age not always indicative of value

Terry Maurer, What's It Worth?December 14, 2013 

Q. I have two old books that my mother left us. The first one is called The Ritual Adopted by the Modern Order of Essenes. Aside from the first few pages, it appears to be in a code of some sort. The other book is dated 1877 and titled A Primary School Dictionary of the English Language. It is by Noah G. Webster, LL.D, William G. Webster and William A. Wheeler. Are either of these books of any value? — Melissa in Kennewick

A. The simple answer is: one of these books is of some value and theother is not.

Schoolbooks from the 19th century are charming and provide a look at life in America more than a century ago. However, they have very little interest to collectors and are practically of no interest at all to people who love old books.

That’s because they are fairly common — many hundreds of thousands were printed — and therefore easy to find. And, in many cases, condition is not very good. Schools texts were used and passed along to the next student and used again and again. They lived a hard life, for a book, and suffered much wear and tear.

Combine the lack of reader and collector interest with the usual condition problems these old books have and you get very, very limited value.

The other book, “Ecce Orienti” or “The Ritual Adopted by the Modern Order of Essenes” is a collectible item and of some value, primarily because it is associated with the Freemasons. Most older items that have to do with any Masonic orders — their rituals, symbols, books and paraphernalia — have collector value.

The religious group called the Essenes was one of the three Jewish sects in Biblical times. The others were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Today, many students of the Masonic orders consider the Essenes to be the forerunners of today’s Freemasonry. Masons will know this book in some detail — it is a secret coded ritual written in a semi-cryptic, symbolistic language and contained in a fold over soft leather cover.

There have been many printed over the years. This example appears to be the 11th edition, published in New York in 1879 by Redding & Co.

Value can be as high as $100.

Q. Our family has had this carved seashell for years. We think an uncle brought it back from his Navy service in the Philippines or Japan. Is it likely to be very old or worth anything much? — Julie in Kennewick

A. This little cowrie shell is a very nice example of souvenir art — just the kind of thing someone would have brought back from a trip or military service overseas.

Cowrie is the common name for a group of sea snails and generally is used to describe their shells rather than the animal itself. Cowrie (also spelled cowry) shells have been carved for centuries.

Historically, the shells have been used as currency, as dice for gambling and as jewelry. Several West African cultures traditionally used cowrie shells as tools for divination and telling the future.

As the shells come from the ocean, carved souvenirs such as this example are almost always from places on or near the ocean. We have seen carved shells from California, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Africa.

Most carved cowrie shells are merely decorative, like this small one. Larger shells can be used as small lamps.

We’d say this shell, which is carved with a Geisha under wisteria blooms, came from Japan and was made sometime in the mid-20th century, 50 or 60 years ago.

They are still being carved and sold as souvenirs today. Values are not high, even for nice examples in excellent condition. Small shells can be purchased for $10 to $20, and larger pieces — such as the lamps — might bring between $20 and $50.

— Terry Maurer, Tri–Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What’s It Worth? by email to

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