Two thousand fifteen seems a different kind of year in the rare book business. The long-term trend toward better and unique copies continues to intensify both in the auction rooms and in dealer catalogues. This suggests a thinner, and inevitably weaker market for very good if not absolutely spectacular copies – the very thing that collectors and dealers most have. This is disappointing but not crushing. For the collector who has yet to buy, it simply means that auction realizations may go lower and in time dealer asking prices follow. The auction outcomes are the bright spot because they confirm liquidity, a necessary feature in a healthy market. The public market, as reflected by auction outcomes, is today huge. This means that for those who buy there are also well-defined exits.
At the same time the quality of material continues to improve. Both dealers and auction houses, confronted by increasingly selective buyers, are focusing on the best material while bringing asking prices and estimates on good to very good material down to maintain cash and transaction flow. Many, and I count myself among them, believe the current market is the best we have seen in decades. It’s efficient, simply reflecting market interest. As a buyer this is all that you can ask.
On the collecting side I continue to pursue interesting material, and am agnostic to the source. In past years eBay has been a steady source of appealing if generally inexpensive material but this past year not so much. I’m not sure where such material now shows up but it’s not in the eBay searches. Their decision to emphasize static listings over auctions is turning them into another Abebooks, in my opinion a dumb idea. Abe is already doing a very good job.
My single most important purchase this year was from a retiring dealer from whom I bought the O’Shaughnessy Archive of Auction Catalogues issued during the period 1865 to 1940. Such material is all but impossible to find as a substantially complete run. A dealer bought these records at a public warehouse sale in New Jersey in 1948 and they have remained untouched since. They cover twenty houses and, at a guess, 2.5 million auction records that will, over the next year or so, bring the RBH Transaction Database well past eight million records. My goal has always been to have a complete auction record in the RBH/AE database. With this purchase and a full year of work we’ll make significant progress.
I have also bought at auction. At the Carlsen Gallery near Albany, on a Sunday in early April, I bid by phone on a wonderful group of prints, most of which are by Currier and Ives. Currier is out of fashion today and the number of unduplicated items that come up is limited. At this sale a very complete set of Hudson Valley and Adirondack prints was offered. I bought about 30 prints, the cost all in about $10,000.
Over the summer I bid at JMW Auctions in Kingston, New York. The lots are sometimes not well documented and the realized prices difficult to obtain. Consequently we don’t cover their sales. But I bid there myself and bought both books and paintings there this year. The paintings are special. Altogether I spent about $9,000.
On November 11th at Bonham's London I purchased an archive of material from Hodgson & Co. Book Auctioneers. This English auction house was a major player in the books and manuscript auction trade from the later 19th into the mid 20th century.
HODGSON & CO. BOOK AUCTIONEERS An extensive archive of business papers, printed matter, photographs and correspondence relating to the book auctioneering firm of Hodgson & Co. (1807-1981), largely dating from the period after the firm's move to Chancery Lane in 1863 comprising; a group of over 100 items of correspondence with vendors and booksellers such as Lord Wardington, The Earl of Halifax, Captain Massingberd of Ormsby Hall, Earl Beauchamp of Madresfield Court, Arthur Symonds, Leonard Huxley, EV Lucas, Sir John Lubbock, Hatchards, A.P. Watt & Son, Henry Sotheran, Quaritch, Maggs & Co. etc., documents concerning the discovery and sale in 1948 of a volume of nine Shakespeare Quartos dating from 1619, a number of letters and documents concerned with possible suspension of book auctions during the First World War (signed by Chatto, Maggs, Karslake and others, with Quaritch removing his signature on the grounds that auctioneers know their business best, and Hodgson's reply giving reasons to continue with sales), various financial papers including a sales book of 1901-8, list of monies owed by booksellers, an auctioneer's folder with 'no bid' list attached, lists of clients and their collections, lists of 'books viewed', typed instructions for cataloguing and work sheets, examples of printed stationery and printing blocks, manuscript plans and documents relating to the premises at Chancery Lane, a series of photographs showing the staff, the building, a sale in progress (with inscription "Reynolds in the pound, J.E.H. Thornton & Milward") and the centenary dinner of 1907, commemorative publications and menus produced for said centenary celebrations, some 50 sale catalogues, many annotated, dating from 1861 to 1981 (the majority 1930-60 but including some noteable sales such as the Strawberry Hill Press collection, 1902, Four Folio Shakespeares, 1948, and Early Books on Surgery and Medicine from Sion College, 1938), receipts and general household accounts, together with various legal and personal papers relating to the family, various sizes and bindings etc., 1860's to 1980's
The firm was in business between 1807 and 1967 and then absorbed by Sotheby’s. The lot was estimated 1,000 to 1,500 British pounds and brought 8,125 all in. Robert Frew, the London antiquarian, represented me.
Book auction history is a subject unto itself. The houses, the characters and circumstances seen through the prism of time yield a stunning perspective. In time, some, perhaps most of this lot will become searchable on RBH.
At another sale Bill Reese represented me at a recent Doyle New York auction to purchase lot 30 a Miscellany of New York Assembly and Senate Journals, 1785-1800:
[NEW YORK - FEDERAL] Miscellany of Assembly and Senate Journals, 1785-1800, 11 volumes all but two in 20th century cloth (one in worn half leather and boxed, one in leather backed boards). Folio printings, sizes vary, largest 14 x 8 1/2 inches (36 x 22 cm). The Assembly Journals include those for the years 1785, 1792, 1795, 1796 and 1799, printed by Francis Childs, Childs & Swain, Samuel Loudon, and Loring Andrews; The Senate Journals, each with separate title pages, includes those for the years 1785-92 (bound together), 1792, 1794, 1798, 1800, and an 1814 volume of indexes for the years 1777-1795, each variously printed in New York, Albany, Poughkeepsie, etc. The entirety with stamps and ink markings to titles and intermittently within, generally clean but with some stains, foxing, etc., the whole not fully collated and sold as is. Eleven volumes.
The lot was estimated $200 to $300 and brought $3,438.
I purchased two related lots at Doyle earlier this year. The bindings, such as they are, will now be reworked to turn these miscellaneous volumes into a somewhat complete set. All such items are rare if not necessarily desired. Deciding how to rebind and box them will be next year’s challenge. However the rebinding works these three Doyle New York purchases will turn out to be a great prize. They are beyond rare.
From dealers I bought a large group of Hudson Valley ephemera. Peter Luke of New Baltimore, New York offers me archive-sized lots every year or so. I also recently bought from Will Monie [ABAA]. I learned of one item and then more thoroughly searched his inventory and found a dozen more. Will is very strong on New York State and that is my primary collecting interest.
Also as I have for years, I bought this year twice more from a retired Albany dealer. He is letting go of his collection book by book and can count on me to be interested.
My experience is anecdotal but the market in what interests me seems to be solid if not particularly pricey while the opportunities are frequent and appealing.
For collectors this is a remarkable moment.