Collections can take many forms but they share some characteristics. One can collect books, maps, manuscripts and ephemera and never leave the world of works on paper. Many collections are built by chance and succeed at creating something of lasting value. But many others, certainly most, remain random assemblies and as such are often later difficult to successfully sell, that is for a profit. Collections, to be achievements, need to have logic and transparency that permit observers to grasp and appreciate the focus. And bringing material into a coherent focus requires that records be maintained, something that is not often enough done but is always important, if not fully understood, until late in the game when collectors think about selling. So why don’t you know this? Well perhaps you do or have at least heard references to it but if you are keeping accurate and complete records you are as rare as your books.
I’m writing about this because Jeremy O’Connor and Michael Di Ruggiero of the Manhattan Rare Book Company recently developed a set of services, Collectorfolio, to organize and advise collectors about building and selling their collections. Their approach is to provide the underlying structure for collections that is often essential to successful outcomes. For new collectors they provide software you can use to document the evolving history of purchases including all information contained in seller descriptions. For collections underway they will also provide trained staff to establish records if such help is needed.
The benefits of detailed records are straightforward.
Good books can be expensive. Knowing who sold the book, the year purchased and the price paid eventually helps whoever later evaluates this material. Absent this information appraisers, dealers and auction houses will prepare their own descriptions – invariably at some expense and with some possible loss of detail. This information or some variation will eventually be prepared because it has to be but often lost may be the logic and history of the original purchase. So let’s keep this information together. It increases outcomes when the material is sold. And it will of course also help your partner to know what to expect if the collector is not available. Think of this as a wonderful gift to inheritors. Or consider the alternative, that your collection is disposed carelessly because no one has any idea of its value. It happens. The Collectorsfolio software is intended to eliminate this uncertainty.
Collections also change. A collector learns things along the way that transform their focus. Most collectors keep their included and excluded material but it’s often better to prune. Collectorsfolio allows for this. The less loved and less relevant can be moved from protected to available status and posted for sale freeing cash and introducing the collector to the realities of selling collectibles, such experience often transforming. Jeremy and Michael’s approach includes the preparation of electronic catalogues that emphasize collector-to-collector transactions that avoid the markdowns when selling and the mark-ups when buying. It’s possible because Manhattan Rare Books will be the fee agent, not the owner. Several examples of collector catalogues are posted as links at the end of this story.
When other sales approaches are needed they will also act as agent and advisor. So, if needed, books can be consigned to dealers, often for exhibition at book fairs and shows. In other cases the best alternative may be to sell at auction, something that sounds easy but is complicated by questions of timing, commissions and auction focus. If the book is an important black history item Swann’s Annual Black History Sale may achieve a better outcome. Knowing this is part of the service that Manhattan will provide. To a great extent the goal of Collectorsfolio is to free collectors of concerns about the viability of serious collecting.
Over time the collector will learn and adjust. It seems a simple thing but the collecting of rare books is built on passion while the dealer’s inventory is built on logic. The goal of Collectorsfolio then is to introduce the dealer’s logic into the collector’s perspective and in this way improve the quality of the collection and the outcome when that time comes. In this way collectors will both enjoy their collections and more readily profit. And along the way through the twists and turns of life, if needed, the collection can function as an asset, one that has given pleasure and can, if needed be returned to the outstretched hands of other collectors. Dealers think this way. Manhattan Books believes collectors should too.
The mechanics of the process will be evolving. Several catalogues of collector material have already been issued and it encourages peer-to-peer transactions. Links to them are provided below.
Many of the great collections that emerge in the future will be built on a more rational basis than has hitherto been the norm because the times and options are different. Auction records are easily accessible and the history and availability of collectible books increasingly known.
So there will be no going back. The field is heading into a world of increasing transparency that will redefine how collections are built, pruned and sold. Jeremy and Michael are simply out ahead of the curve, thinking through the issues that will arise, preparing today’s important collections for the options they will someday consider and employ.
It’s a smart strategy for all parties.
Three Collector’s Folio presentations –
Links to Jeremy at Manhattan Rare Book Company