Heading into fall buyers and sellers will be meeting head one in a series of auctions that will illuminate the strength and direction of the market. A great deal is at stake. As has been the case all year auction houses are handling increasing volume while recently experiencing a marginally lower percentage of completed sales [see charts]. A reasonable conclusion is that reserves are bit higher than buyers are comfortable to reach. The why is less certain. One interpretation is that the market, while orderly, is having trouble absorbing increasing volume. Another is that the economy is weighing on the market. Both are probably true and their interaction hard to gauge. Simultaneously the median lot price continues to rise – suggesting that while the percentage of lots has declined those items that are selling are realizing higher prices. This supports the argument that many dealers make – that quality, rarity and importance sell. Unfortunately there is more to the market than high spots and the important middle market, defined, as $500 to $4,000, is selectively weak. Some of this weakness owes to improving value and relevance analysis but the underlying issue is simply availability. Material in the middle market is often not as rare or significant as once thought.
This may lead to a paradoxical shift in values with premium material increasing in value while a wide swath of  collectible but relatively common and  important but thinly supported material decline. Pricing, which has been somewhat arbitrary for decades, may be facing energetic rebuttal in the market place. What is known is that 70% of spending in dollar terms is made by 20% of the population and that they tend to purchase luxury material.
Into all this uncertainty the auctions approach. On September 15th the Eric Caren collection How History Unfolds on Paper, Part I will be sold at Swann. The Caren sale, which I write about elsewhere in this month’s issue of AE Monthly, is a difficult sale for serious collectors to ignore. It includes intriguing material relating to signal events. Eric has a marvelous eye and has commissioned Swann to sell, in three sections over the next two years, many unique pieces relating to history, most of it American. It’s complexity is such that a review of its index [see attached] may well be the best way to see it, that of course and AE’s auction lot search.
And because this sale is composed of “mixed media,” that is many forms of works on paper including photographs, broadsides, newspapers, pamphlets and books, it taps into some of the strongest sectors in collecting today. Such material deserves to do well.
Another sale in October will provide us with perspective on how a more narrowly focused collection does. It’s the Robert H. and Donna L. Jackson Collection of the 19th century and includes both printed and manuscript material, much of it unique. It is an important collection.
Between these two single owner sales and the many other auctions to be conducted this fall we will live through the changing alchemy of collectibles on paper. On the other side we will know more. What we know going in is that some very appealing material is coming up. How the market will treat this material remains to be seen.
So the title of this article is the fall ahead. Is it the autumn season or something else? We’ll know soon enough.