Abstract The material benefits of forests – for example, the production of wood and environmental services – are often characterised as tangible, or ‘real’. In contrast, the cultural and spiritual significance of forests for people is often characterised as intangible, or ‘imagined’. Old forests are particularly valued for both their ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ values. In contemporary Western societies, the distinction between these values for old forests is frequently strongly drawn, and the two sets of values are generally represented as largely incompatible. We draw from empirical and psychological research to suggest that such a division between the ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ values of old forests is less clear or helpful than is often presumed. There is empirical evidence that these values can coexist, for both individuals and societies, and psychological research suggests that the ‘imagined’ values of forests can be just as ‘real’ as their material values. However, there are very real difficulties in assessing and representing the ‘imagined’ values of forests in terms compatible with criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management that emphasize quantification and objectivity; this is a significant constraint to fully incorporating these values into forest management decisions. We identify this as an area requiring further research and development to inform management of old forests. We concur with others that proper recognition of the ‘imagined’ values of old forests does not necessarily lead to unambiguous choices about their management, and suggest that neither the ‘real’ nor the ‘imagined’ values of forests should necessarily be privileged above the other in the management of old forests.