Auctions: It’s a New World Out There
By Bruce McKinney
This month the AE ushers in significant changes in the ways book auctions and the people who love books interact. With the development of the AE auction module many of the longstanding assumptions and methodologies of the traditional book auction process simply yield to new technology and to our commitment to provide auction information in a way that places the book collector at the center rather than at the periphery of the auction process. By creating categories of interest (at this point about 80) for the Americana field and categorizing all appropriate lots in all visible upcoming sales we make it possible for collectors of specific categories of material, Civil War-iana for example, to quickly scan all upcoming sales both in the United States and Europe for material that is of personal interest. In doing this, we take what has been an expensive, time consuming and uncertain process and make it a reasonable, efficient and rewarding experience. In doing this we open up to the broader community of interested parties the extraordinary world of books at auction.
Today, only a small percentage of book people buy at auction and most of them are repeat buyers. That is, they have successfully purchased in the past and they seek to do so again. This small minority that buys at auction does not proselytize auction buying. In fact they are usually silent. Their information of and about the auctions has been valuable to them. Understandably, they don’t share it. Auction houses, on the other hand, do not do a good enough job of publicizing themselves and they are almost never part of activities that publicize auctions and the auction bidding process generally This is because they are in keen competition with each other. They can only sell what sellers agree to consign and to obtain consignments they perpetually compete with other auction houses. They compete on the basis of expertise and their ability to prepare appropriate descriptions in elaborate catalogues. They compete on the basis of commission rate. They compete on the basis of promotion and they compete based on their sales histories with particular types of material. They are often competing for what seems to be a declining quantity of books that are offered for sale at auction at all. So of course, they compete against alternative selling approaches as well.
Not so long ago a book collector, at the end of their collecting career, had only three alternatives for dispersing a collection: donate to an institution (and receive a tax credit for the gift), sell to a dealer or sell at auction. Today those possibilities now include selling on a listing site such as ABE and selling on an auction site such as eBay. But of these alternatives, only an outright sale of the entire collection to a dealer or sending the collection to auction will yield a complete cash outcome in any reasonable time. The auction approach affords an indisputable “market” outcome that lawyers sometimes prefer. Whereas a dealer may expect to receive higher prices when they sell they are not certain when these prices will be realized. This may limit the offer a dealer will make.
Reconstituting the book auction process can not come soon enough. The proliferation of net sites may be increasing the overall number of transactions but they also seem to be having some negative impact on book auction volume. The auction process has been particularly vulnerable because it is the least internally organized. Book dealers are organized around core organizations such as ABE (a 5% listing site) which has more than 9,000 registered sellers, ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers with more than 2,000 members and the ABAA, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America with almost 500 members. They each function as a group while the auction houses each operate very independently.