The rare book business is the art of identifying attractive material, stocking it and then connecting with those who have the desire and resources to acquire it. The business takes many forms, an alchemy of shops and locations, catalogues and connections. However the business is structured all dealers share the need to efficiently acquire stock. For collectors and institutions the challenges are different. Theirs are to conceptualize a concentration and identify reliable sources from which to acquire. Setting between them are auctions that provide fleeting opportunities to acquire desirable material, often at attractive prices. Dealers, with years of experience, understand the ephemeral availability of material at auction, monitor sales closely and buy a majority of the lots offered. Collectors, at least at the outset of their collecting careers, are less likely to buy at them. The relationship between dealers, collectors and the auctions is therefore ever changing. Dealers, for their part, often exaggerate the risks of buying at auction while auction houses tend to minimize such concerns. The truth lies somewhere in between. Some institutions and collectors become auction buyers but the majority does not. Sorting all this out adds drama to the quest for books. Doing it correctly adds value and or reduces wasteful spending. At every stage information and experience are crucial. Dealers have historically gained theirs via apprenticeship, as collectors, networking and through the use of extensive resources. Old-time dealers frequently had hundreds, even thousands of reference materials. Collectors for the most part have relied on dealers for perspective, institutions a combination of resources and advice. As the following account suggests you can never know enough.
I recently read a fascinating book, Anatomy of an Auction, written by Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman. It’s hardly a new book but neither is it an old story. The Book Collector published it in 1990. It is the account of an important auction, the dispersal of the property and contents of Ruxley Lodge in Claygate, near Esher, in Surrey England by estate auctioneers and valuers, Castiglione & Scott. Included in the eight-day event were three days of book sales that were understood by the book trade to include exceptional material of immense value but that was not fully understood by the auctioneers. This knowledge on the one side and naivety on the other would set the stage for such a blatant abuse of the consignor that eight years later dealer “ringing” would be made a criminal act. At the time such rings were legal. This book is as it says, an anatomy of an auction, this auction.