Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2013 Issue

Book Prices Declined in 2012... Maybe

Washconst

George Washington's copy of the Constitution was the top priced book auctioned in 2012 - $9,826,500.

All else being equal...

This month we look back at 2012 at auction for our annual state of the book trade review. This is not because most books are bought and sold at auction. They are not. Most sell through dealer shops, online at listing sites or eBay, or through other private transactions. However, those transactions are hidden from the public eye. Only auction sales take place under the glare of the open market, so they provide our best look at what is taking place in the trade.

This past year's numbers indicate a decline in price, which seems consistent with unscientific, anecdotal comments from dealers. Still, this brings us back to that first line - all else being equal. All else was not equal in the auction rooms this past year. More books are appearing at auction. Whether this represents a shift in how books are sold, or reflects a greater quantity of books coming to market, is unclear. What it does say is that changes are taking place in the book market. A flood of books to a particular venue could push prices down while not necessarily being reflective of the overall market. Most likely it reflects some softening in price, but we cannot be as confident of this assessment as we would be if sales volume was similar while prices went down.

For example, one notable difference was the emergence of Heritage Auctions as a high volume seller. We've not seen anything quite like it before. Their share of books sold at auction rose from 1.7% a year earlier to 12.5% last year. Their median, as might be expected with such a high volume, was lower than average, skewing the numbers down.

This past year, we were able to track 310,489 items in the books/paper/ephemera field offered at auction, with 221,248 lots sold. The sell through rate was 71%. The previous year (2011), the number of lots offered was 244,840, with 166,903 sold, a sell-through rate of 68%. That's a 27% increase in lots offered, and despite the “flooding” of items, the sales rate actually increased by 3%. For starters, we can conclude there is a robust market for books, even if prices may have come down somewhat.

Next, we look at the median price for books at auction, the price at which half of the items (which sold) sold for more, and half for less. For 2012, that number was $351.That is down from $378 the prior year. That is a drop of 7%, a not insignificant amount. Still, it is hard to determine whether the higher number of books being offered explains more of the drop than does a deteriorating market.

So... next we looked at the percentage of items which sold for more than their high estimate vs. the number which sold for less than their low estimate. This one was surprising. Last year, 51% of the lots which sold, sold for more than the high estimate, vs. 28% for less than the low estimate. The prior year, that ratio was 46%-30%. In other words, even though the median price was down, more books last year were selling for more than was expected than was the case the previous year. Unless auction houses were greatly reducing their estimates, which seems unlikely, books and related material were outselling expectations, and achieving a greater sell-through rate. This is not what we would expect from a depressed market. The result is that while we experienced a 7% decline in the median price of books at auction last year, it appears that this decline can at least in part be attributed to many more books being put up for sale at auction this past year, rather than declining interest.

What does this mean for the traditional bookseller? We have only anecdotal evidence of their sales, but it will surprise no one in the trade that we don't hear a great many dealers saying they had a bang-up year. Bookselling can be challenging these days. Traditional strategies, from issuing paper catalogues, to operating bricks and mortar showrooms, to attending book fairs, may not work as well as they once did. Nevertheless, it should be of comfort for those in the trade to realize that books are selling, and at a slightly higher rate at auction than a year ago. The market is still there. The challenge is finding it.

The volume leader this past year was Heritage Auctions, selling 27,662 lots. They now conduct some of their sales online. Runner-up was last year's leader, Kiefer Buch und Kunstauktionen of Germany, with 13,034. Despite slipping to second, their unit sales nonetheless rose 15%. Bloomsbury was the only other house to reach five digits, with 11,375 (note – major houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's are tracked by individual location, rather than combining all sales).

The highest median price went to Christie's King Street location in London, at $13,000. Also in five digits were Sotheby's in New York at $10,625 and Christie's in New York at $10,000. However, the highest average sale went to Sotheby's in London at $47,135. A higher average relative to the median indicates some very expensive items were among their mix. For those scared off by such numbers, the median at 16 auction houses was between $100 and $200. There are auction houses that feature many lots in double digits, affordable for those who don't frequent the halls of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Fall, followed by spring, remain the most active times of the year, with November again being the busiest month. However the greatest increases on a percentage basis came in some of the traditionally off-months, including July and January. With more material coming to auction, some houses have been holding sales in traditionally slow months, evidently attempting to avoid being lost in the rush of the busiest months.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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