On December 2nd Bonhams in New York and via simulcast in San Francisco, conducted the sale of "The American Experience 1630 - 1890". As the consignor I can confirm it was an experience. The sale was presented as an unreserved mirror-on-the-market event and everyone seemed to see the results differently. As Shakespeare might have said, "the mirror always lies" or tries to. For myself it was confirmation of the efficacy of 'the-auction-as-event' approach and evidence of the endemic market weakness that prevails today. In succinct terms the sale brought a 20% premium on its full original cost. More than 200 registered to bid, 34 of which were new bidders at Bonhams. Thirty-seven spent more than $10,000. The overall bidding pool represented 29 American states and 8 countries. The house issued a superb catalogue, offered it widely, and advertised the sale extensively. A series of videos were issued. All that could be done was done. The outcome was very good but the results, given the support Bonhams provided, may be difficult to duplicate.
The sale worked while suggesting comparative weakness. The highly valuable and rarest material sold well as it has elsewhere throughout the downturn, common rarities less well. The threshold between 'safe and supported' material probably rose to more than $5,000. A decade ago it was $1,000, as recently as three years ago around $2,500.
During much of the past decade such material has been listed by dealers at somewhat higher prices, reflecting the general strength of the rarest books that have been trending up over the past twenty years. However, in this sale, when exposed to public reappraisal without reserves the community that buys, sells and collects often stepped aside to let items change hands for substantially less than what they themselves asked years ago. This suggests two possibilities. Prices may not so much have fallen as been exposed as inflated. Alternatively prices may have risen with the market but now fall at different rates, the middle of the market demonstrably weaker than the first tier. As to which view is more accurate it's unclear and probably irrelevant. When I was acquiring the material I believed the prices made sense. That the market's view changes is unsurprising. Neither is dealer pricing infallible. In buying primarily from Bill Reese I didn't know then what I know now - that he often bids at auction on items he sold. In this sale which brought $4.058 million he was the largest buyer by lots and dollar volume. Every collector should have such a dealer.