Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2014 Issue

The Facts on the Ground

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After over 250 years in business, Sotheran's has learned to adapt to change (from their website).

This is  the second of three articles on changes in the field.  Dealers adapt.  They are canny and need to be.

 

The book business is not going away but neither is it going to remain the same.  Virtually all things that can change do.  Elsewhere in this issue of AEM there’s a piece on a San Francisco Public Library’s Friends of the Library program that is converting discarded material into the two fuels that power libraries, a sense of purpose and money to support San Francisco’s Public library system.  Their project is the remarkable conversion of what, just a decade or so ago, looked like a local failing used book field – now experiencing a fresh incarnation.  Such stories will probably never be common but neither will they be rare.  Changing circumstances encourage innovation.

 

For rare book dealers the challenges are different but equally compelling because, as in all things, their only constant is change and they are living in a seismic era.  For San Francisco Public the catalyst has been price.  What once cost something often now costs next to nothing.  For dealers their seismic changes are availability and transparency, their determining factors rarity and relevance in an electronic world too often reduced to electronic contact.  Those dealers who long preferred to make their cases in person no longer have so many opportunities.  By some estimates 70 to 90% of all bookshops have closed over the past 30 years.  Human contact, it turns out, is possibly the Internet’s greatest casualty.  Today’s new normal places the written description-story-telling capability second only to the Svengali-esk capacity to find great material.  We know from the SFPL experience that there are lots of books out there.  They are handling 1 million volumes every 74 weeks.  Successful dealers handle perhaps a thousand a year, selling to collectors and institutions that rely on them for expert advice.  There is the great mass of material and then there are the gems.

 

Many booksellers years ago sensed that the internet would in time shift the setting of prices from the hands of the sellers to the “show of hands” of buyers.  Rarity is a much over-used term and the stacking up of unsold copies over the past ten years conclusively shown that this word and its meaning has been so misused as to be almost irrelevant.  Rarity now requires a third party reference.

 

However dealers do it, to succeed they have had to shift their focus to the highly uncommon where the defining issues are relevance and importance.  This trend has helped dealers with the intellectual chops to explain their material while forcing the sellers of the more common material into the “let’s make a deal" environment that listing sites have drifted into.

 

In this changing environment the periodic re-authentication of price in the auction rooms has loomed large in importance because prices on the listing sites have proven surprisingly inflexible.  The theory has been [1] "if I cut my price others will cut theirs and I will then gain nothing,” and [2] “the market always recovers so I will get my price.  I just don’t know when.”

 

These attitudes, now widely known, are encouraging buyers to look more closely at auctions because they reflect changing valuation, sometimes lower prices, and in any event “market certification.”  If an item purchased at auction is later sold its earlier auction authentication becomes very important for it provides a pricing history that fresh buyers often take into account.

 

For dealers fresh and special have long been important attributes of what they invest their money and time in.  Those who have made this transition can expect to continue to do well.  Those who have become bogged down with rank and file copies of the too frequently copious examples may find themselves having to send an increasing percentage of their stock to 438 Treat Street or other similar triage centers.

 

The old rules simply don’t work anymore.

 

The final article in this series considers the role of auctions today. Click here to continue.


Posted On: 2014-06-02 10:05
User Name: tenpound

Bruce:
An article about "dealers" that encourages "buyers to look more closely at auctions" reveals AE's anti-dealer, pro-auction bias. Despite your excellent work compiling the AE database - one of the most useful tools to arrive on the scene in recent years - you are clearly not a friend to the trade.
Greg Gibson
Ten Pound Island Book Co.


Posted On: 2014-06-03 19:21
User Name: Fattrad1

Bruce,

I have to challenge your growth rate projections for auctions, I believe you are interpolating. That is using past statistics and drawing lines into the future, Wall St. is often guilty of this.

Having just completed one year of business with an open used bookstore, I am projecting a stabilization of prices for scarce works, the type of inventory that most dealers thrive on. We have been rather disappointed with the two auction houses we have bought/sold from, poor description of condition for purchases and a complete failure with a sale attempt on a RARE book.


Posted On: 2014-06-07 21:45
User Name: AE244154

Dear Greg,

I am committed to dealers. They are the lifeblood of the market but they too are living through the transformation that is changing collectors and libraries’ approaches to their collections. The increasingly unified market simply re-values and re-prioritizes material in ways no one could have predicted ten years ago.

Dealers have had opportunities to adjust and many have adjusted because the world in which they built their businesses is no longer the world we live in. And other formulas, that once worked better, now work less well.

I believe we know the issue is not whether there are enough collectors. Auctions are selling more lots each year while maintaining a consistent sell-through percentage.

In an article in the July issue of AE Monthly I’ll examine both the current state of the dealer trade and options for the future.

There’s a future. It just isn’t the one most expected.

Bruce
Bruce McKinney
AE


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>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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