Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2005 Issue

First Catalogues

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Mr. Babcock's first catalogue. Today he's at work on no. 130


By Bruce McKinney

Over the past three years I have acquired 2 to 3 million auction records and about 17,500 dealer catalogues from the period 1850 to the present. I have done so to build the Americana Exchange Database [AED]. Today we have 1,090,974 full text records online and continue to add material non-stop. We of course are also entering upcoming auction lots and adding realized prices after the sales.

In the process of sorting through the thousands of dealer catalogues I noticed that new dealers often "announced" their first catalogues and so I began to set aside such catalogues I could identify as "firsts." I now have more than 70 and undoubtedly there are many more among the thousands of catalogues I have yet to examine fully. I offer here, as an electronic file, this collection of firsts and some observations about catalogues in general. [Link to First Catalogues]

First catalogues are a remarkable achievement. Accumulate the reference books and the material and then research and write the descriptions. Choose a price, develop selling policies, choose a catalogue format and a printer, create a mailing list, mail the catalogue and pray. It's a wonder so many dealers have created catalogues at all. Failure is a possibility at any stage and success never certain.

In the 19th century bookseller catalogues were common. Even run-of-the-mill material was catalogued. With the 20th century came specialization and by the 1940s the general catalogue was disappearing, replaced by specialist presentations. Catalogues since have progressively mined the deepest levels of understanding, parsing the facts, the printers, the sequence, the events and all sort of hitherto less understood points of significance about printed materials. The best dealers have earned and are continuing to earn the premiums they charge for the research they do. Until the 1990s the system seemed to work. Then, with the advent of the internet, it became possible to easily find alternative copies. The dealer, who did the research, could no longer confidently expect to sell their material based on the work they did. Collectors would be motivated to purchase a copy but not necessarily their copy. In time the financial justification for the effort and expense of creating catalogues weakened. Today, fewer and fewer catalogues are issued because the financial underpinnings continue to erode.

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