New Man at a Crucial Moment
By Bruce McKinney
One of the storied seats in all of book auction selling is going to be filled on January 3rd. The seat is as Head of Books & Manuscripts at Sotheby's in New York. The person set to take charge is Richard Austin who, until October, was head of Books and Manuscripts at Bloomsbury in New York. Mr. Austin achieves this position at a moment when the role of major auction houses in the books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera field is being redefined by changing economics, changing access, quickly enveloping communication and extensive development of informational resources. Both Sotheby's and Christies are evolving into brands under whose flags auctions are held around the world in fields as diverse as wine, artwork, jewels and books. Increasingly they sell the highly desirable to the exceptionally wealthy through skillfully prepared catalogues and marketing campaigns. Books, that were the heart and soul of both firms for two hundred years, remain a strong emotional attachment but one that, on a dollars and sense basis, do not compare to the objects of desire that raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Mr. Austin enters the fray at a moment when the seat, as head of books in New York, is particularly hot. The knowledgeable will be rooting for his success.
Books, that have meant so much to more than twenty-five generations of the interested and the obsessed, will be hoping that Sotheby's maintains its commitment in America to the field that gave it its start in England. If the question is "what have you done for me today" for the book business the answer is not so much. If the question is "what do I owe you?" the answer is everything. IBM was once an adding machine company that later developed sophisticated typewriters and today is a leader in large system programming. Companies change and Sotheby's path may lead elsewhere. But Sotheby's has also been the undisputed leader in the rare books auction field for generations so the direction they take will impact the field in ways more fundamental than any other company. As this story unfolds the Sotheby's commitment in Europe is not in question.
For Sotheby's today the seeming goal is to create a 'Sotheby's world.' This approach makes accessing their book sales a multi-step process that diminishes involvement. Fewer bidders means having to impose stronger reserves to maintain the sense of aloof sophistication but, for the collectible works on paper field, restricted access and high reserves also reduce transactions and diminish interest. Sotheby's, while establishing its brand as a purveyor of all things luxurious, is also an auction house and it is as an auction house rather than as a dream merchant that collectors and the field look to Sotheby's for leadership.
The answer is to treat books, manuscripts and ephemera as a world apart. In this way Sotheby's can continue to sell its appropriate share of the best and greatest printed items and employ every technology and technique, however plebian, to reach the broader audiences now a prerequisite for successful auction sales. In the rare book field reputation is no longer enough. Great material is now increasingly found in out-of-the-way places, and then studied and compared online before bidders bid by phone or click 'enter' to bid electronically. You can bring all that information into Sotheby's world or integrate Sotheby's auctions fully into the world of books. I suspect company strategists will prefer 'Sotheby's world'. The book world will be better served by a fully integrated approach.
We cannot have back the world that was but we can hope that Sotheby's will continue to play the signal role it has played for more than two centuries. In New York Mr. Austin assumes a storied position at a crucial moment and we are rooting for him. The stakes are high.