Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2010 Issue

A Positive Trend for Regional Auction Houses

Trend1

$25 a word


By Bruce McKinney


Leslie Hindman Auctioneers of Chicago struck gold with 3,129 words which they sold for $79,300 or $25.34 each. These words were written in 1880 by Samuel Clemens in his hand, the manuscript document, chapter XLII of 'A Tramp Abroad.' One can only imagine what Twain would say about this today. Possibly nothing. Rather he might write a note saying something like. "I'm happy to hear the news. Please pay me $250." This note is of course ten words. Whether he would demand a premium for large words is unknown. In Chicago recently Leslie Hindman made no distinction. Sam would no doubt be happy just to know that he is remembered and that since he slipped off this mortal coil one hundred years ago his words continue to be valued.

That Twain's words are valuable will surprise no one. That they are rising in Chicago is encouraging and part of a trend that sees more important books going to auction in regional centers. The economic distinctions, for the auction business, between New York and London and other major cities in the United States and Europe is narrowing just a bit. In the evolving world that incorporates the internet into everyday experience material consigned locally is increasingly selling nationally. Consignments after all are physical and usually vetted locally. That such material then consigned locally can reach an international audience and achieve pricing parity with the major auction houses is something new and good news for Chicago and other auction venues.

Such was the case with this chapter of Mark Twain that was consigned by a regional estate to a Chicago auction house and sold to a private buyer in the northeast. Not so many years ago such items might have brought less outside of New York. By all reports, the price achieved in Chicago is a record.

According to Mary Williams, Director of Books and Manuscripts at Leslie Hindman, while Hindman is a full service house selling all kinds of consignments in catalogued sales throughout the year they gather books and manuscripts into three specialist sales a year to intensify interest. In this way extensive cataloguing and promotion are possible. Recently they issued their first printed book catalogue with color. With the pricing differential between major and minor venues narrowing we can expect to see more regional catalogues. Ms. Williams indicated their threshold for cataloguing single owner sales is generally lower than New York houses.

For Chicago and mid-west consignors it's a very nice opportunity. Catalogued books usually obtain better outcomes.

For auction houses, consignors and bidders elsewhere it's an indication that the rules are changing. What is already working in Chicago, Boston [Skinner's] and New Orleans [Neal] can certainly work in Atlanta, St. Louis and Denver and across western Europe.

As with most things in life there's only one enduring rule: Change is inevitable. Machiavelli [1469-1527] said it this way, "Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times." It was true then. It is true now.

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